Coronavirus: New Zealand sides with US, Australia and pharma giants in battle for 'people's vaccine'

New Zealand won't be backing the call for a "people's vaccine" to help prevent COVID-19 sweeping through the developing world.

Low-income countries, the World Health Organization and NGOs like Oxfam and Amnesty International have called on the World Trade Organization (WTO) to void intellectual property rights when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines, with fears billions of people could miss out.

Rich nations are snapping up most of the vaccine supply, Oxfam said this week. Canada, for example, has bought enough doses to vaccinate its population five times over. 

"By buying up the vast majority of the world's vaccine supply, rich countries are in breach of their human rights obligations," said Amnesty head of economic and social justice Steve Cockburn. "Instead, by working with others to share knowledge and scale up supply, they could help bring an end to the global COVID-19 crisis."

South Africa and India have asked the WTO to void patents belonging to pharmaceutical companies, allowing countries to make generic versions of vaccines like Pfizer's BNT162b2 and Moderna's mRNA-1273, which have been shown to be more than 90 percent effective at stopping the virus in trials. 

It's been done before - in 2001 WTO intellectual property (IP) rules were loosened to help poor African nations get the drugs they needed to fight the HIV epidemic, and in the 1950s the inventor of the polio vaccine didn't even try to make a single cent from his invention. 

Pharmaceutical companies and rich nations such as the US, UK and Australia have argued against the move, saying it would remove the incentive for companies to develop new vaccines and treatments, and that many nations don't have the manufacturing capabilities anyway.

Peter Crabtree, chair of New Zealand's COVID-19 Vaccine Strategy Taskforce, said while New Zealand is "strongly committed to global equitable access of COVID-19 vaccines", it won't be supporting the suspension of intellectual property rights in this case.

"We have been listening to views about how to make vaccines available and are open to suggestions, but do not support calls for the WTO to suspend intellectual property rights related to COVID-19 vaccines, medicines and other medical products," he told Newshub.

"New Zealand supports the WTO's IP agreement... and the balance it strikes between providing access and incentivising investment in innovation, manufacture and distribution."

Instead, New Zealand is throwing its support behind the COVAX Facility Advance Market Commitment "that will purchase vaccines for vulnerable and low-income countries, including in the Pacific".

"We are also participating in the COVAX Facility to purchase vaccines for New Zealand and the Realm (Tokelau, Cook Islands and Niue)," said Dr Crabtree.

"The COVAX Facility is also an important mechanism to ensure access to vaccines for all. Through COVAX, developed countries are contributing funding for a portfolio of vaccines that will be delivered as soon as they are available to people in vulnerable and lower-income countries."

New Zealand, one of the world's wealthier countries per capita, has secured vaccine supply through direct deals with Pfizer and Janssen Pharmaceutica.

There is also a Kiwi effort to develop a vaccine based on homegrown 'bio-bead' technology. If it works it won't be ready for a while yet, but the hope is that it will be more effective and cheaper to produce and distribute than the current vaccines being rolled out.