Australia will support a global push to waive intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines to allow for cheaper generic versions to be manufactured in developing nations, following months of pressure from human rights groups and foreign governments.
Australia has been one of the last holdouts not to publicly back the plan, and following months of outright resistance and then support only for ongoing negotiations, the trade and investment minister, Dan Tehan, said Australia will now support the waiver at the World Trade Organisation.
For months, Australiaâ€™s reluctance to back the waiver had generated criticism from human rights and aid groups, and had even triggered protests outside Australiaâ€™s consulate in San Francisco.
On Wednesday, Tehan cited a shift in US policy in May as the reason behind Australiaâ€™s support. Russia and China had also supported the waiver in recent months.
A group of 15 NGOs and churches in the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network met Tehan on Tuesday, and released a statement on Wednesday revealing that the minister had told them Australia will support a Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver for Covid-19 vaccines.
The groups urged the Australian government to take a stronger public position, including during foreign minister Marise Payneâ€™s visit to India on 11 September, and at the next meeting of the WTO meeting on 14 September.
Asked about the development on Wednesday, Tehan said â€œwe have always said we would support a TRIPS waiver when it came to Covid-19â€.
â€œWhen the US came out and said this, the prime minister welcomed that news,â€ Tehan told reporters in Canberra.
â€œWe continue to work constructively in Geneva to do everything we can to expand the production of vaccines globally because we need everyone across the globe to get access to a vaccine, ultimately, to be able to be safe.â€
â€œWeâ€™ve already expressed that support and weâ€™ve been working with countries to get a resolution to this issue,â€ Tehan said.
Tehanâ€™s comments suggesting Australia had expressed support for the waiver after the US reversed its opposition in May are in contrast to an explanation of Australiaâ€™s position given by department of foreign affairs and trade officials.
In July, officials told a senate estimates hearing that Australia viewed the terms of the proposed waiver as too broad, and as such, the country was only supporting text-based negotiations to reach a compromise on the waiver.
In March, Tehan initially explained Australiaâ€™s hesitancy towards the waiver as being â€œto make sure that there are some protections in place for the millions of dollars that has gone into the research to create these vaccinesâ€.
Aftinet convenor Dr Patricia Ranald said the group â€œwelcomes the ministerâ€™s support for the waiver because we need urgent action to end monopoly controls of Covid vaccinesâ€.
â€œRich countries are first in line to negotiate with companies, but even Australia has experienced delays in supply,â€ she said.
â€œMost low-income countries will not have access to vaccines until 2023 or later. Millions are dying as new variants like Delta develop and spread, prolonging the pandemic,â€ said.
Pharmaceutical company patent monopolies had previously been described as â€œthe elephant in the roomâ€ in the debate about Covid-19 vaccine shortages in Australia in recent months.
Associate professor Deborah Gleeson, of the Public Health Association of Australia, said the governmentâ€™s â€œwords must be matched by actions at the WTOâ€.
â€œWe look forward to hearing that Australia is unequivocally supporting the waiver and encouraging other countries to do the same,â€ Gleeson said in a statement.
â€œFailing to secure a waiver puts the whole worldâ€™s progress in overcoming the pandemic at risk.â€
In May, Pfizer warned Australia against joining a growing push to waive the intellectual property protections for Covid-19 vaccines, arguing it could actually harm vaccine supply and invite less safe copycats.
In a submission to a parliamentary inquiry, Pfizer claimed open-slather production could see scarce inputs snapped up and â€œmay invite copycat medicines from suppliers that lack the knowhow to manufacture vaccines safelyâ€.
Despite gaining the support of more than 100 countries in the months since South Africa and India first raised the proposal last October, the WTOâ€™s consensus-based voting system, which requires absolute support from members, has allowed a minority of countries to repeatedly block the waiver.
The existing WTO TRIPS agreement requires member nations to provide patent protection for medicines for at least 20 years.
More than 85 poor countries are not predicted to achieve widespread vaccination rollout before 2023, if at all, because of licensing rules and distribution limits.
Several pharmaceutical companies across the world who have expressed an interest in making Covid-19 vaccines have cited production permission as a barrier.
In May, World Health Organization director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, called the USâ€™s support for the waiver â€œa monumental moment in the fight against Covid-19â€, and called on the remaining holdout countries to follow.