How Australia is holding back vaccine supply

Aug 30, 2021 • 14m 45s

As wealthy countries like Australia race to vaccinate their population, many other nations in our region are falling behind due to the high cost of vaccines: a cost set by big pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer. As a result, South East Asia is now the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic. Today, Lyndal Rowlands on the proposal that could speed up vaccinations around the world, and why Australia is holding it back.



How Australia is holding back vaccine supply

535 • Aug 30, 2021

How Australia is holding back vaccine supply

[Theme Music Starts]


From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

As wealthy countries like Australia race to vaccinate their population, many other nations in our region are falling behind, due to the high cost of vaccines: a cost set by big pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer.

As a result, South East Asia is now the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Today, contributor to The Saturday Paper Lyndall Rowlands on the proposal that could speed up vaccinations around the world, and why Australia is holding it back.

It’s Monday, August 30.

[Theme Music Ends]


Lyndall, how did you come across this story and what made you want to dig into it?


So I used to be a United Nations correspondent, so I used to report a lot on health while I was there. Before that, I was working in the Australian government aid programme in this region on health programmes. So I was always really interested in these stories about health. And so when this came up with the Covid-19 vaccines, I immediately thought ‘that's something that needs to be followed’. But yeah, there hasn’t been quite as much attention in Australia.


And in Australia we've spent a lot of time focusing on how the pandemic is playing out state by state here, but how does that compare to what's been happening in countries in our region, countries like Thailand and Indonesia? How are they coping with the Delta variant?


Yes, so many of the countries in Southeast Asia did really well last year at managing Covid. But what we've been seeing with these new variants is that countries like Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand have all been experiencing their worst outbreaks so far.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #1:

“We begin in Vietnam, where the number of Covid-19 infections is soaring.”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #2:

“Across Southeast Asia many governments are struggling to contain new coronavirus outbreaks.”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #3:

“Indonesia's Covid-19 situation is currently a worst case scenario. Worst hit are the islands of Java and Bali.”


So just over the last two weeks alone, there have been 38,000 people who have died in the region. So it's now being described as the global epicentre of the pandemic.


And at this stage in the pandemic, in places like Australia and in Europe, we're seeing less deaths from Covid-19, and that's because there are more vaccinations. So what's the situation for vaccine access like in these countries, these places in Southeast Asia?


So alongside this spike in cases, the countries in Southeast Asia also have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the world.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #4:

“Thailand's Covid-19 vaccination rollout has been derailed just a week after its launch. The government has admitted that it hasn't received enough doses to meet its vaccination targets.”


So, for example, Vietnam has only fully vaccinated about two percent of its population.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #5:

“Vietnam is facing its darkest period of the pandemic to date. The outlook isn't very reassuring either. Vietnam has one of the lowest vaccine rates in the region...”


The United States has just announced it's going to donate one million doses to Vietnam. But for a country of nearly 100 million people, that's nowhere near enough to meet the need. There is also this plan that has been set up by richer countries called ‘Covax’, which is where richer countries have been aiming to pool their donations but unfortunately, so far, that has been nowhere near meeting the need.

And that's partly because there haven't been enough donations. But it's also because countries, including Australia, have been dipping into that pool of vaccines for their own populations.

But there is actually another proposal that has been put forward.


What's that proposal? Can you tell me about it?


So that would be through waiving the patent so that more vaccines could be made faster.


Okay so how would that work Lyndal, and what impact would it have?


So last year we saw the pharmaceutical companies were all racing to be the first to develop vaccines. And these vaccines have built on decades of research by scientists. But the companies that were the first, like Pfizer and Moderna, got to secure these massive deals with governments because international laws, as they are currently, give them this exclusive right to manufacture and sell the vaccines.

But in the world of pharmaceuticals, there are different models in which the patents actually expire, or can be waived. So I think most people probably know that if you go to the chemist, you might have been offered the option to get a generic version, which can be cheaper than the brand name.

For example, you know, ibuprofen is the generic name for Neurofen or Advil, and countries could be making generic vaccines that use the same materials and technology as Pfizer and AstraZeneca.


Right. So that sounds like a good thing. How do we go about getting that in motion?


Yeah, well, there are actually already serious discussions underway at the World Trade Organisation about temporarily pausing the intellectual property on Covid-19 medicines.

TRIPS is what it's called. And it's a legal waiver, so that third parties can manufacture generic vaccines without big pharmaceutical companies blocking production or access to raw materials and technologies.

And there is actually a precedent for this TRIPS waiver, it was introduced once before during the AIDS crisis, after campaigning from South Africa and Nelson Mandela,

Archival Tape -- Nelson Mandela:

“It is our belief that the single most important step we must now take is to provide access to treatment throughout the developing world.”


So this means that vaccines could be manufactured by many more companies all over the world. That would allow developing countries to make more of their own vaccines and also to buy them at much closer to the cost of production, not having to pay the monopoly price that is currently being set by the big pharmaceutical companies.


And so how far advanced are these discussions to waive the patents on the vaccines?


So this time TRIPS was proposed by South Africa again, and it was supported by India because under the current rules, they would have to wait up to 20 years for a generic version of the Covid-19 vaccine.

But the proposal actually quickly got support from more than 100 countries at the World Trade Organisation. So we're talking about a pretty substantial majority of countries there.

But most of the countries that are blocking it now, there's just a handful of them, and they're mostly the developed countries with close links to the pharmaceutical industry.

Interestingly, one of the countries that now supports the waiver is actually the United States, though, which historically has represented the interests of Big Pharma.

But one of those countries that is holding out on supporting the proposal is actually Australia.

So we've been helping hold up discussions to temporarily waive the patents and blocking countries that desperately need vaccines from accessing them.


We’ll be back in a moment.



Lyndal, why isn't Australia supporting these patent waivers that would enable our neighbours to get access to vaccines more quickly, what does Australia have to gain here?


Well, Ruby, the Morrison government, as we know, is still in negotiations with Pfizer to get more vaccines to Australia. And of course, Pfizer is extremely opposed to this waiver. They are forecast to record a profit of $45.7 billion just this year alone. So they and the other pharmaceutical companies with these monopoly rights are doing pretty well.

So I reached out to Dan Tehan, the Minister for Trade and Tourism, for comment; but he didn’t respond to my specific questions; his office just pointed me to an interview he did in June with an Indian television network.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Reporter #1:

“Right. What kind of support is the Australian side willing to offer for the Indian proposal on the Covid-19 vaccine patent waiver?”

And the minister said then that Australia was willing to look at the proposal:

Archival Tape -- Dan Tehan:

“Look, we've said all along that we're prepared to look at a vaccine waiver.”


But this was already in June. So that was actually already about eight months after India and South Africa had originally put the proposal forward.

So I think the issue here, as the experts I spoke to were saying, is that it seems like Australia is not really treating this like it's a race. And that maybe is partly because of the delicate position we're in as we're still trying to get enough of our own doses at home as well.


And so what about the vaccine manufacturers, companies like Pfizer? Do they have any good reason to be blocking these kinds of arrangements? I mean, they've already made billions of dollars through the Covid-19 vaccinations that they've developed. So what else would they need?


Yes. So one of the reasons that the pharmaceutical companies are putting forward is that they want to hold on to the exclusive rights to the MRNA technology because they say it could have lots of future applications potentially to treat cancer and other illnesses as well.

MRNA is this new technology that is used in the Pfizer vaccines.

And so even Australia has been in these talks at the moment, trying to set up our own MRNA manufacturing here. But so far, these companies are holding onto that technology so tightly that that hasn't really led to anything.

It's not really the first time that we've seen this sort of thing happen. So, for example, historically, when Australian patients who had Hepatitis C wanted to get medicines, they had to form buyers' clubs to go to other countries and get their medicines from overseas. And in the US, we know there's a lot of problems. For example, people have to ration their insulin, because the prices keep going up.

So that's the kind of power that these rules give the Big Pharma companies.


So, Lyndal, what is likely to happen next? Does it seem like this waiver pass will get off the ground? Does it seem like there will be an increased access to vaccines as a result of that happening? Or does it look like these companies backed by countries like Australia, will prevent that from happening?


So the TRIPS council is going to meet up again on the 14th of September. And that's also around the same time as there's going to be this first big global summit of leaders meeting to talk about Covid.

It looks like Morrison might be going to New York to speak at the United Nations around the same time. And so it's pretty likely, given how many countries support this waiver, that this is going to be pretty high up on the agenda.

So especially, as we saw from Tehan’s interview with the Indian television station, this is really high on the agenda for India, which, as we know, has been hit so hard by these variants, but it's also the world's biggest manufacturer of generic medicines.


And Lyndal, that’s what this is all about right? Doing everything we can to get everyone around the world vaccinated as fast as possible. It seems like that’s been lost in this international debate over rules and profitability.


Yeah, absolutely. So for these countries in Southeast Asia that have these much lower vaccination rates, as we're seeing and, you know, this doesn't really work if we just vaccinate the rich countries because, you know, once we open borders, if we haven't totally eliminated these variants from all around the world, then it doesn't really sort of work to only vaccinate some countries, and not others.

There are billions of people around the world who do need access to this vaccine. And India and South Africa have put forward this proposal. They say they have the capacity to make more vaccines. So I think that we really have to listen to what they're asking.


Lyndal, thank you so much for your time, and for talking to me about all of this.


Thanks so much, Ruby.



Also in the news today…

The Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has confirmed that the state’s lockdown will extend beyond this Thursday, after 92 new cases of Covid-19 were recorded on Sunday.

It was the highest tally of daily cases since September 3 last year.

New South Wales recorded 1,218 cases of Covid-19 on Sunday - its highest daily tally so far.

Six people died, including three people in their 80s and three people in their 70s. Four of those unvaccinated and two had one dose of the vaccine.

And New Zealand has recorded 83 new cases of Covid-19 in the community, its worst day of the Delta outbreak yet. The Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is considering introducing even tougher restrictions, to try and stop the spread.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see ya tomorrow.

As wealthy countries like Australia race to vaccinate their population, many other nations in our region are falling behind due to the high cost of vaccines: a cost set by big pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer.

As a result, South East Asia is now the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Today, contributor to The Saturday Paper Lyndal Rowlands on the proposal that could speed up vaccinations around the world, and why Australia is holding it back.

Guest: Contributor for The Saturday Paper, Lyndal Rowlands

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Elle Marsh, Michelle Macklem, Kara Jensen-Mackinnon and Anu Hasbold.

Our senior producer is Ruby Schwartz and our technical producer is Atticus Bastow.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.

Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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535: How Australia is holding back vaccine supply