Slow progress on vaccine deliveries to developing countries

Slow progress on vaccine deliveries to developing countries


Australia’s efforts to help vaccinate citizens of low-income countries in the region have stalled due to recipient nations struggling with the logistics of administering doses, former health department secretary Jane Halton says.

While 96 per cent of Australians have had two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, in low-income countries only 16 per cent of people have received a single dose and the international COVAX initiative to donate 2 billion doses to 146 countries is behind schedule.

132,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine landed in Port Moresby, PNG in April 2021 through COVAX. Credit:Unicef

“A number of countries actually asked us to pause delivery,” Halton, chair of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and COVAX co-chair, said. “You need more functioning health systems to deliver those kinds of vaccines.”

Australia, which used half a million doses from the COVAX stockpile of Pfizer vaccines for its local booster rollout, has contributed more than 40 million out of 60 million doses promised for the Indo-Pacific region.

The wider global COVAX initiative is 500,000 doses behind its target of distributing 2 billion doses.

Health Minister Mark Butler met with his G20 counterparts on Monday to discuss issues including the COVAX initiative, in which Australia is among 90 wealthy countries working to improve vaccine access globally.

“As a member of the global community Australia stands ready to help communities in our region and beyond,” Butler said.

“We will continue to work with our Quad vaccine partners – India, Japan, and the US – to share doses where and when they are needed.”

Martin Hensher, a professorial fellow at the Menzies Institute for Medical Research, said Australia should invest in non-profit vaccine development and manufacturing of doses for low-income neighbours, rather than relying on “monopolistic” pharmaceutical companies.

After almost two years of negotiations, the World Trade Organisation on Friday agreed to waive patents on COVID-19 vaccines for five years, giving developing countries a chance to manufacture generic versions of the vaccines available in high-income countries.

Trade Minister Don Farrell said the WHO agreement would send “a powerful signal of global solidarity in fighting COVID-19” and support equitable access to vaccines for developing countries, including across the Indo-Pacific region.

Medicines Australia chief executive Elizabeth de Somer, representing pharmaceutical companies, said the decision “will have a negative impact on future innovation” and that 20-year drug patents had been crucial to delivering “safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines in record time”.

“We should be protecting the systems that enable medical innovation, not tearing them down,” de Somer said.

Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network convenor and international trade expert Patricia Ranald said pharmaceutical companies – mostly based in European countries that fought the WTO waiver at their request – had “already made an enormous amount of money” from the vaccines.

“They’ve had the monopoly for two years,” Dr Ranald said.

“Research and development was subsidised by governments, so it’s not that pharmaceutical companies had to take a big risk.”

Companies now stood to make large profits from COVID-19 treatments not covered by the waiver, she said. Pfizer has reported that it earned $51.6 billion [AUD] from COVID-19 vaccines last year.

Ranald said it was unclear if the waiver – which only covers patents, not trade secrets, equipment specifications or operating instructions – would enable developing countries to make the COVID-19 vaccines, as some reverse engineering would be required.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security is working with countries in the region on national COVID-19 response planning.

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