Media Release: As Omicron grows, WTO faces last chance to lift monopolies on COVID19 vaccines in 2021

As World Trade Organisation (WTO) delegates meet today to discuss a proposal to temporarily lift vaccine intellectual property patents, vaccine equity advocates are calling for immediate action amid a ‘tsunami’ of Omicron cases. 


Public health advocates, human rights campaigners, fair-trade organisations and trade unions are warning that today’s meeting may be the world’s last chance in 2021 to remove monopoly barriers on life-saving vaccines. The proposal, first put forward more than one year ago, has the support of more than 100 member states in the WTO, in addition to the World Health Organisation (WHO). 

As wealthy countries approve third ‘booster’ doses of vaccines in response to the Omicron variant, public health experts have underscored the importance of waiving monopolies to allow increased global production of vaccines and treatments in developing countries like India and South Africa which already produce generic medicines. 

The WTO meeting comes as the average rate of vaccination among low-income countries languishes at 7%, while the rate in high-income countries sits above 75%, causing the WHO to warn countries against hoarding booster shots. Donation programmes cannot meet the shortfall. Meanwhile, fury is building over the dumping of out-of-date or low-quality vaccines in poor countries, with the African Union and the WHO issuing a joint-statement admonishing that “the majority of the donations to-date have been ad hoc, provided with little notice and short shelf lives.” 

Trade Minister Dan Tehan has previously confirmed Australia’s support of the proposal (known as the ‘TRIPS Waiver’) to allow countries such as South Africa and India to produce their own COVID19 vaccines and treatments. In a joint letter delivered to Mr. Tehan, advocates called on the Minister to do more, urging him to join the 64 other countries which have co-sponsored the proposal. 

Associate Professor Deborah Gleeson, spokesperson for the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA), said: “The rapid spread of the Omicron variant will put more pressure on limited vaccine supplies and exacerbate the already vastly unequal access to vaccines across the world. Vaccine donations will not go far enough soon enough. A waiver of intellectual property rights for COVID-19 medical products has never been more urgent.” 

Dr Patricia Ranald, Convener of the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network said: “Omicron is the direct result of global vaccine inequality, as new variants develop in areas of low vaccination. The WTO will lose its credibility as a global institution unless it puts saving lives first and waives monopolies on COVID vaccines and related products to enable increased production in developing countries.” 

Lyn Morgain, Oxfam Australia Chief Executive, said: “For more than 12 months, world leaders’ failure to push through this proposal has reinforced the monopoly of pharmaceutical companies and helped create the perfect breeding ground for new variants such as Omicron. As more and more Australians begin lining up for their third shot, Sub-Saharan Africa has only received enough doses to fully vaccinate 1 in 8 people, let alone think about a booster program. Omicron should be a wake-up call for the Australian government and others: we must act now before it is too late.” 

Liam O’Brien, Australian Council of Trade Unions Assistant Secretary, said: “The pandemic won’t be over until everyone, including those in developing countries, is vaccinated. New variants will continue to emerge unless leaders in wealthy countries, including Prime Minister Morrison, takes action and supports the TRIPS waiver.” 

Michelle Higelin, ActionAid Australia Executive Director, said: “Vaccine equity is crucial to gender equality. Women in low-income countries are at the frontline of the COVID-19 crisis, making up two-thirds of global health workers and the majority are carers for families and communities. We commend Australia for supporting the TRIPS waiver, but as a wealthy country we need to do more to end this vaccine apartheid and co-sponsor the proposal now. 

Ry Atkinson, Amnesty International Australia Strategic Campaigner said: “We’re nearly two years into this crisis, yet more than 90% of people in low-income countries are still without a single dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. With new variants like Omicron emerging, what more is it going to take for governments to accept that business as usual isn’t going to get us out of this pandemic? At the WTO, governments have one last chance this year to agree on a TRIPS waiver and show they’re actually willing to put people’s lives above the profit of a few pharmaceutical companies. They must take it.” 

For more information and interviews with ActionAid spokespeople, please contact: Milly Atkinson Handley, ActionAid Australia’s Communications Officer on +61 (0)414 860238 or [email protected]