Coronavirus: New Zealand urged to rethink lack of support for 'people's vaccine' to end COVID-19 pandemic

Advocates for a 'people's vaccine' to fight the COVID-19 pandemic are disappointed New Zealand won't be offering its support. 

Developing countries, the World Health Organization (WHO) and a number of NGOs like Oxfam and Amnesty International are calling on the World Trade Organization (WTO) to loosen intellectual property (IP) rules so production of vaccines can be ramped up.

They say rich nations are using their wealth to buy up all the available vaccines - Canada for example has purchased enough to vaccinate its population five times over. India and South Africa have asked the WTO to waive patent rights, allowing cheap generic versions of vaccines to be made without fear of breaking international trade agreements. 

Peter Crabtree, chair of New Zealand's COVID-19 Vaccine Strategy Taskforce, told Newshub said while New Zealand is "strongly committed to global equitable access of COVID-19 vaccines", it won't be supporting the motion.

"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."

Oxfam NZ, which backs the call to waive patents, said it was "disappointing for the New Zealand government not to support a decision that could help to prevent billions of people missing out on a life-saving vaccine".

"Poorer countries do not have the same leverage as richer nations to protect their populations while those wealthy countries are hoarding more than they need," said spokesperson Joanna Spratt.

New Zealand is participating in the international COVAX effort to build manufacturing facilities and buy up enough vaccines for 2 billion people who otherwise might miss out. On Saturday the WHO said COVAX had already secured nearly 1 billion doses, thanks to the help of 189 different countries. 

"The COVAX Facility is also an important mechanism to ensure access to vaccines for all," said Dr Crabtree. "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."

But Dr Spratt said it was "no perfect solution", with rich countries hogging the supply "for years to come". 

"There simply comes a time when humanity's common good must take precedence over private profit. This is that time. The only way we can truly put an end to the coronavirus pandemic is by providing a free vaccine to everyone in the world who needs one."

Forty countries have signed onto the WHO's Solidarity Call to Action for "equitable global access to COVID-19 health technologies through pooling of knowledge, intellectual property and data". New Zealand is not among them, despite Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern earlier this year signing an open letter with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and others calling for "equitable distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, based on the spirit of a greater freedom for all". 

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 which isn't expected to go into trials until late 2021.