Open Letter: Australia must support the removal of barriers to COVID-19 vaccines and medical tools

The below is an open letter from lawyers and legal scholars and organisations calling on the Australian government to support the temporary TRIPS waiver at the World Trade Organisation

Dear The Hon. Scott Morrison, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 

We write as Australian lawyers and legal scholars to urge the Australian government to show global and regional leadership to ensure increased global production and more equitable distribution of the tools to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, we call on the Australian government to support the temporary TRIPS waiver at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in order to remove legal barriers to production of and access to medical tools (including vaccines, treatments, and diagnostics). 

The longer it takes for the global population to be vaccinated and achieve herd immunity, the more likely it is that further COVID-19 outbreaks will threaten Australia’s relative security and prosperity. Approximately 11 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines are needed to vaccinate 70% of the world’s population and achieve population-level or herd immunity. To date only approximately 1.2 billion vaccine doses have been administered. Based on current trajectories, mass immunisation in poorer countries could take until 2024 or longer. The failure to ensure developing countries have access to COVID-19 vaccines could cost the global economy US$9.2 trillion. Critically, the longer it takes to vaccinate the world the more likely it is that new variants will develop that could potentially render current vaccines ineffective. Already multiple SAR-CoV-2 variants are circulating globally.

The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) requires WTO member states to provide legal protections for a broad range of intellectual property rights. These protections are not absolute, and trade law provides a number of flexibilities, including compulsory licensing in low- and middle-income countries, to address public health emergencies. The 2001 Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health affirms that TRIPS “can and should be interpreted and implemented in a manner supportive of WTO members’ right to protect public health and, in particular, to promote access to medicines for all”. 

Countries also have international human rights obligations to ensure access to medicines, including COVID-19 vaccines, to all. Human rights experts have recently affirmed that “The TRIPS Agreement can and should facilitate the protection of public health on a global scale, promote self-sufficiency of all members, and not be a barrier to accessibility of COVID-19-related medicines and vaccines”. However, existing TRIPS flexibilities were designed to address localised epidemics or supply issues. The exceptional circumstances of the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis requires a comprehensive global approach based on multilateral cooperation.

In response to concerns that intellectual property rights were potentially hindering timely access to essential medical supplies India and South Africa in October 2020, proposed a waiver from the implementation, application and enforcement of certain TRIPS provisions (Sections 1, 4, 5, and 7 of Part II of the Agreement and to enforce them under Part III) in relation to the prevention, containment and treatment of COVID-19. They argued that “an effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic requires rapid access to affordable medical products, including diagnostic kits, medical masks, other personal protective equipment and ventilators as well as vaccines and medicines for the prevention and treatment of patients in dire need.” The proposed waiver is now supported by over 118 of 164 WTO member states.

On 5 May 2021 the Biden-Harris Administration announced its support for waiving intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines, recognising that “the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures”. Thereafter, New Zealand changed its stance to support the waiver “as an important part of our collective efforts to address the human catastrophe of the pandemic”. The European Union too has indicated greater willingness to negotiate the proposal, but has not yet agreed to a waiver. Australia still has the opportunity to join those countries leading a more equitable global response to the pandemic.

It is profoundly urgent that the world acts now to ensure more vaccines are made in order to save lives and livelihoods. Alongside, promoting greater sharing of vaccines technologies and know-how through the COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) supporting this waiver is a critical way to facilitate the global recovery from this pandemic. We therefore call on the Australian government to publicly support the TRIPS waiver, not just for vaccines, but for all medical tools necessary to prevent, contain and treat COVID-19.

The next regular meeting of the WTO Council is scheduled for 8-9 June 2021. We urge the Australian Government to announce this position prior to the next meeting and to engage constructively to ensure that the waiver moves through text-based negotiations quickly.  

Yours sincerely,

1. Dr Julia Dehm, La Trobe University 

2. Professor Sundhya Pahuja, Melbourne Law School 

3. Dr Ntina Tzouvala, ANU College of Law 

4. Associate Professor Anthony Hopkins, ANU College of Law 

5. Connor Foley, Melbourne Law School 

6. Dr Jess Hambly, ANU College of Law 

7. Dr Shane Chalmers, Adelaide Law School 

8. Associate Professor Imogen Saunders, ANU College of Law 

9. Tim Lindgren, PhD Candidate, Melbourne Law School 

10. Johanna Commins, PhD Candidate, Melbourne Law School 

11. Dr Cait Storr, University of Technology Sydney  

12. Associate Professor Ben Golder, University of New South Wales 

13. Professor Bronwen Morgan, UNSW Sydney Faculty of Law and Justice

14. Professor Jennifer Beard, University of Melbourne 

15. Dr Sara Dehm, Faculty of Law, University of Technology Sydney 

16. Professor Fleur Johns, UNSW Sydney Faculty of Law and Justice 

17. Dr Savitri Taylor, La Trobe Law School 

18. Dr Hannah Robert, La Trobe Law School 

19. Professor Sarah Joseph, Griffith Law School 

20. Dr Marc Trabsky, La Trobe Law School 

21. Claerwen O’Hara, PhD Candidate, Melbourne Law School 

22. Dr Madelaine Chiam, La Trobe Law School 

23. Dr Laura Griffin, La Trobe Law School

24. Dr Maria O’Sullivan, Monash University 

25. Odette Mazel, Melbourne Law School 

26. Dr. Kamalesh Adhikari, TC Beirne School of Law 

27. Robi Rado, Melbourne Law School 

28. Dr Erica Millar, Crime, Justice and Legal Studies, La Trobe University

29. Dr Emma Russell, Crime, Justice and Legal Studies, La Trobe University

30. Dr Daniel Joyce, UNSW Sydney Faculty of Law and Justice 

31. Associate Professor and ARC Future Fellow Rebecca Giblin, Melbourne Law School

32. Professor Sean Cooney, Melbourne Law School 

33. Dr Perla Guarneros, La Trobe Law School 

34. Professor Farrah Ahmed, Melbourne Law School 

35. Dr Ozlem Susler, La Trobe Law School 

36. Melissa Kennedy, Melbourne Law School 

37. Toerien van Wyk, PhD Candidate, Melbourne Law School 

38. Professor Lee Godden, Melbourne Law School 

39. Pan Karanikolas, PhD Candidate, Crime, Justice and Legal Studies, La Trobe  University 

40. Dr Thomas Andrews, La Trobe Law School 

41. Dr Cristy Clark, Canberra Law School 

42. Juliette McIntyre, University of South Australia and PhD candidate, Melbourne Law  School 

43. Dr Cassandra Steer, Senior Lecturer, Australian National University College of Law

44. Dr Sarah Moulds, Justice and Society Unit, University of South Australia

45. Dr Kathryn Greenman, Lecturer, University of Technology Sydney

46. Professor Susan Harris Rimmer, Griffith University 

47. Associate Professor Benedict Sheehy, Canberra Law School 

48. Emeritus Professor Gary Dowsett, La Trobe University 

49. Professor Justine Nolan, Director Australian Human Rights Institute, UNSW

50. Professor Joo-Cheong Tham, Melbourne Law School 

51. Jane Knowler, University of South Australia 

52. Dr Michelle Fernando, University of South Australia 

53. Dr Marco Rizzi, University of Western Australia 

54. Dr Susannah Chapman, The University of Queensland 

55. Dr Karen Crawley, Griffith Law School 

56. Dr Dylan Lino, Law School, University of Queensland 

57. Dr Emma Palmer, Griffith Law School 

58. Dr Alice de Jonge, Monash Business School 

59. Professor Mary Keyes, Griffith Law School 

60. Dr Shelley Bielefeld, Griffith Law School, Griffith University 

61. Dr Edward Mussawir, Griffith Law School, Griffith University 

62. Professor Louis de Koker, La Trobe Law School 

63. Professor Miranda Stewart, Melbourne Law School 

64. Lev Bromberg, Melbourne Law School 

65. Ashleigh Best, PhD Candidate, Melbourne Law School 

66. Dr Erin O’Donnell, Melbourne Law School 

67. Emily O’Connell, Melbourne Law School 

68. Professor Elena Marchetti, Griffith Law School 

69. Alice Bleby, UNSW Faculty of Law and Justice 

70. Azadah Raz Mohammad, PhD Candidate, Melbourne Law School

71. Millicent McCreath, PhD Candidate, UNSW Sydney Faculty of Law and Justice

72. Siddharth Narrain, PhD Candidate, UNSW Faculty of Law & Justice

73. Dr Kathleen Birrell, Melbourne Law School 

74. Astari Kusumawardani, Melbourne Law School 

75. Dr Rebekah McWhirter, School of Medicine, Deakin University 

76. Tess Whitton, Melbourne Law School 

77. Elizabeth Hicks, PhD Candidate, Melbourne Law School 

78. Dr Mark Taylor, Melbourne Law School 

79. Professor Harry Blagg, UWA Law School 

80. Tomas Fitzgerald, Minderoo Tech & Policy Lab, UWA 

81. Sam Klintworth, National Director, Amnesty International Australia

82. Minna Paltiel, PhD Candidate, Melbourne Law School 

83. Dr Allan Ardill, Griffith Law School 

84. Nina Araneta-Alana, PhD Candidate, Melbourne Law School 

85. Dr Michelle Staggs Kelsall, SOAS University of London 

86. Professor Leighton McDonald, ANU College of Law, Australian National University

87. Professor Leanne Weber, Canberra Law School 

88. Dr Kate Leader, York Law School 

89. Alex P Dela Cruz, PhD Candidate, Melbourne Law School  

90. Michelle Burgis-Kasthala, University of Edinburgh  

91. Professor Lisa Brophy, La Trobe University 

92. Dr Gabrielle Simm, University of Technology Sydney 

93. Jocelyn Bosse, PhD candidate, Law School, University of Queensland

94. Dr Adrian Aronsson-Storrier, School of Law, University of Reading  

95. Dr Kate van Doore, Griffith Law School  

96. Professor Katharine Young, Boston College Law School 

97. Dr Philipp Kastner, University of Western Australia  

98. Rebecca Faugno, UWA Law School 

99. Prof Jean du Plessis, Professor (Corporate Law), Deakin Law School, Deakin  University 

100. Professor Ainsley Newson, University of Sydney  

101. Professor Willem de Lint, Flinders University 

102. Emerita Professor Margaret Thornton, Australian National University

103. Professor David Wishart, La Trobe University 

104. Dr Jane Kotzmann, Deakin Law School 

105. Associate Professor Hilde Tubex, UWA Law School 

106. Professor Alison Gerard, Canberra Law School, University of Canberra

107. Associate Professor Michelle Taylor-Sands, University of Melbourne

108. Saika Sabir, PhD Candidate, Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne

109. Rebecca Tisdale, Clinical Solicitor, Deakin Law School 

110. Sahiba Maqbool, PhD Candidate, La Trobe Law School, La Trobe University

111. Associate Professor Guy Fiti Sinclair, Victoria University of Wellington  Faculty of Law 

112. Dr Elyse Methven, Faculty of Law, University of Technology Sydney  

113. Dr Alice Palmer, Senior Fellow, Melbourne Law School 

114. Daria Vasilevskaia, PhD Candidate, Melbourne Law School & Aix Marseille University 

115. Dr Luís Bogliolo, Melbourne Law School 

116. Adjunct Professor Holly Cullen, UWA Law School 

117. Dr Adil Hasan Khan, Melbourne Law School  

118. Divya Garg, PhD candidate, RMIT University, Melbourne.

119. Professor Brian Opeskin, Faculty of Law, University of Technology Sydney.

120. Associate Professor Laurie Berg, Faculty of Law, University of Technology  Sydney 

121. Dr Katherine Fallah, Adjunct Fellow, University of Technology Sydney

122. Professor Beth Goldblatt, Faculty of Law, University of Technology Sydney

123. Dr Joanna Kyriakakis, Faculty of Law, Monash University

124. Dr Sophie Riley, Faculty of Law, University of Technology

125. Dr Tamsin Phillipa Paige, Deakin Law School 

126. Professor Lucas Lixinski, Faculty of Law and Justice, UNSW Sydney

127. Associate Professor Peter Burdon, Adelaide Law School, University of  Adelaide 

128. Dr Melanie O’Brien, UWA Law School 

129. Dr Brandy Cochrane, Victoria University 

130. Angela Kintominas, Faculty of Law and Justice, UNSW Sydney

131. Dr Michelle Rourke, Griffith Law School 

132. Dr Anthea Vogl, Faculty of Law, University of Technology Sydney

133. Dr Usha Natarajan, Edward W Said Fellow, Columbia University

134. Professor David Leary, Acting Associate Dean (International), Faculty of Law,  University of Technology Sydney.  

135. Balawyn Jones, PhD Candidate, Melbourne Law School  

136. Dr Peter Handford, emeritus Professor, UWA Law School

137. Betty Barkha, PhD Candidate, Monash University 

138. Professor Robyn Carroll, UWA Law School 

139. Professor David Kinley, Sydney Law School  

140. Elisabeth Lopez Desvars, Faculty of Law, Monash University 141. Duncan Wallace, PhD Candidate, Faculty of Law, Monash University

142. Hamish MacDonald, PhD candidate, Law School, University of Queensland

143. Caitlin Murphy, PhD student, Melbourne Law School  

144. Dr Jordana Silverstein, La Trobe University 

145. Associate Professor Rebecca Monson, ANU College of Law

146. Danish Sheikh, PhD Candidate, Melbourne Law School 

147. Mostafa Haider, Lecturer, Curtin University Law School 

148. Dr Maria Elander, La Trobe University 

149. Adjunct Assoc. Prof Judith Grbich, Griffith Law School 

150. Adjunct Professor Dr Ian Duncanson, Griffith Law School

151. Dr Angela Daly, University of Strathclyde Law School (Scotland). Australian  citizen and former member of Queensland University of Technology Faculty of Law  and Swinburne University of Technology. 

152. Professor Kathy Bowrey, Faculty of Law & Justice, University of New South  Wales 

153. Dr Piers Gooding, Melbourne Law School 

154. Dr Kate Grosser, RMIT School of Management 

155. Professor Penelope Weller, RMIT University. 

156. Professor Alan Lowe, RMIT University.