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Australia, PNG and the Covid vaccine

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| John Menadue’s Pearls & Irritations

As Papua New Guinea faces a worrying spike in Covid-19 cases as well as an increasing spread through its provinces, Australia has failed to organise the vaccine it promised and, along with other big Western countries, has now refused to make it possible to produce more vaccine. These are extracts from a longer article, linked to here

MELBOURNE - Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union are refusing to waive intellectual property rights to Covid-19 vaccines so developing countries can produce the vaccine locally.

This refusal, in the face of vaccine hoarding by rich countries, is likely to cause millions more deaths because of slower access to a vaccine.

It is also extremely short sighted because long delays in global vaccination will enable more powerful variants to emerge.

Vaccine nationalism is continuing unabated in Australia and other rich countries.

Politicians play to lockdown-fatigued publics, boast of procurement deals and promise herd immunity.

Meanwhile many low- and middle-income countries face long delays in accessing vaccines, even for frontline workers and vulnerable groups.

Millions of lives could be saved, and long delays in accessing vaccines eased, if the World Trade Organisation waived certain provisions of its intellectual property agreement that deals with copyright, industrial designs, patents and so on in regard to Covid-19.

Such a waiver would enable lower income countries to access the vital technologies to scale up local production of the Covid-19 vaccines.

While more than 100 governments support granting the waiver, Australia, the US, the UK and the European Union continue to oppose it.

Last October, India and South Africa proposed that the WTO agree to waive sections of the TRIPS Agreement that relate to Covid-19 and for the waiver to remain in place until widespread vaccination had occurred globally, and most of the population had developed immunity…..

If low- and middle-income countries have to wait an extra year or two before achieving herd immunity because the West is commandeering the vaccines, there will be about 40-50 million more cases of infections and perhaps 2 to 3 million additional deaths.

Many of the deaths will be of health workers…..

Meanwhile, Covax, the global initiative aimed at equitable access to Covid vaccines, remains underfunded, excludes upper middle-income countries from any subsidy, and only aims to facilitate the vaccination of just 20% of the population of participating countries.

The recent announcement that 90 million doses will be delivered to African countries through Covax by mid 2021 will only cover 3% of those countries’ populations.

While Covax aims to deliver a further 600 million doses by the end of 2021, enough to immunise 20% of the population, this is optimistic in terms of procurement and delivery is nowhere near close to achieving herd immunity…..

Sun Kim, MS PhD, a Director of the Health Policy Research Centre of the People’s Health Institute in South Korea and Coordinator of the People’s Health Movement for South East Asia and the Pacific

David Legge is a scholar emeritus in the School of Public Health and Human Biosciences at La Trobe University in Melbourne and a founding member of the People’s Health Movement


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Paul Oates

There is another very important lesson about the transfer of a virus or indeed any transmissible disease. Along with millions of others, I too wait for the time I can be vaccinated and hope I'll be fortunate not to catch the virus or any other disease beforehand.

Yet the current regime of hand sanitation, social distancing and mask wearing have had a huge impact on stopping the spread of any virus, let alone Covid 19. The usual coughs and colds and flu are not present in the Australian population at anything like the usual rate.

The usual germ factories of child care and schools are still operating, albeit on a periodic go/stop basis. Reduced air travel and worst of all, cruise ships are not operating at the moment and that is helping to keep the pandemic at bay. However there are those who simply won't understand why they should think about others when they couldn't care less about themselves.

Some societies have practiced wearing face masks when ill for decades yet this simple device is shunned by those who consider it an encroachment on their personal freedom. Much the same applies to those who don't want to get the vaccine when it is offered. Some still can't or won't understand about the rules of social distancing and think it's a personal insult to ask them to do so.

The ability to transfer a virus through the air after a person coughs or sneezes is important to understand however by simply touching a surface after someone who is infected has also touched or sneezed on that surface can easily spread the virus if you then rub your eyes or eat something with your hands.

Where clean water is not available for hand washing, hand sterilizers are very important. Perhaps those who are demanding to have the vaccine produced in their own country should instead be taking all the preliminary steps that we, who have yet to be vaccinated, are currently taking as a necessary discipline?

It's not only cheaper, but it's also clearly very effective.

Chris Overland

As I understand it, Australia has committed about $500 million to procuring and distributing Covid 19 vaccine to its Pacific neighbours, including PNG.

This is why CSL has been tasked with producing 50 million doses of the Astra Zeneca vaccine, with the option of producing many more if necessary.

Many billions of dollars have been spent to develop a number of vaccines in record time. This cost has been, partly at least, subsidised or under written by various governments including the UK, USA, Australia, Canada, India, China and so forth.

The intellectual property for the vaccines remains with the inventors and manufacturers, not with those governments.

A demand that those rights be simply handed over to whoever wants or needs them would be totally at odds with the development of centuries old legal requirements around property rights.

Instead, governments of various persuasions have opted to distribute vaccine to poorer or less technologically capable countries through various means, including the Covax program being implemented under the auspices of the World Health Organisation.

It is by no means clear that simply handing over the property rights to anyone who held up their hand would necessarily speed up the process of manufacturing and delivering the vaccine.

The production process is but one element in a long supply chain and probably not the key determinant of how quickly the vaccine can be distributed.

A country's wish to prioritise its own population above others seems to me to be quite understandable and logical.

Basically, you have to save yourself first before you can turn towards helping others.

Many of the purportedly selfish countries like Italy or France or the UK have suffered tremendous harm as a consequence of the pandemic and their politicians are under enormous pressure to stop the pain. This is the context for their decision making in relation to the distribution of the vaccine.

Australia has, comparatively speaking, done remarkably well in managing its response to the pandemic so as to minimise the harms done.

That said, there still has been serious personal and economic damage and so the federal and state governments are determined to push on with the national vaccine program first and foremost. There are no political or economic rewards in prioritising other countries first.

Some people may find this political calculus repugnant but it reflects a rational response to the situation.

I think that the author is right to say that one consequence of this policy approach is that herd immunity on a global scale is not going to be easily achieved within, probably, at least a 2 year time frame, maybe much longer.

So the pandemic will roll on and more people will be harmed or die despite the best efforts of just about everybody to bring it under control.

This debacle should teach us about how cooperation and collaboration always trumps competition when a crisis arises but, thus far at least, the evidence that this lesson has been learned is pretty thin.

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