Blogger Martyn (Bomber) Bradbury has brilliantly coined the term ‘neo-kindness’ to describe the government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Ardern has astutely popularised kindness as a critical part of New Zealand’s impressive response to both the Christchurch mosque terrorist murders and the elimination strategy for combatting Covid-19 community transmission.
But there is another side to this government. For this Bradbury has introduced the ‘neo’ both as a play on the term ‘neo-liberalism’ and the government’s kindness bent towards business (and subsequently business consultants in the health system). But, even at his bombastic best, he would never have contemplated this neo-kindness extending to the international pharmaceutical companies appropriately labelled ‘Big Pharma’.
This neo-kindness extension has reared its unpleasant head at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). It has been well covered internationally by The Intercepthttps://theintercept.com/2021/04/23/covid-vaccine-ip-waiver-lobbying/?utm_medium=email&utm_source=The%20Intercept%20Newsletter and domestically by FIRST Union researcher Edward Miller https://www.newsroom.co.nz/a-peoples-vaccine-the-best-way-nz-can-support-india?utm_source=Friends+of+the+Newsroom&utm_campaign=6cc7e91460-Daily+Briefing+05.05.2021&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_71de5c4b35-6cc7e91460-97923692.
The TRIPS waiver
In responding to the Covid-19 pandemic there was a frequently used slogan that no one is safe until all are safe. But disgracefully it finds no resonance at the WTO where Big Pharma’s profits take precedence over the safety and health of billions of people. Over three million people have died in the pandemic. As the virus continues to mutate into more deadly variants this number will only further and significantly increase.
The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Director General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus strongly advised the WTO meeting on 14 April to support a proposal sponsored by South Africa and India for a temporary Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) waiver in world trade. TRIPS is a minimum standards agreement which allows WTO member countries to provide more extensive protection of intellectual property if they so wish.
The requested waiver would empower countries to adjust their domestic policies and practices to battle Covid-19 most effectively. This would be done by suspending some exclusivities otherwise required by TRIPS with respect to patents, copyrights, industrial designs and undisclosed information where they would hinder the production of health products and technologies for prevention, treatment and control of the pandemic.
In plain language, the waiver would enable ‘Global South’ countries to manufacture generic versions of COVID-19 vaccines by putting to one side WTO intellectual property restrictions..
In justification WHO reported that while more than 800 million vaccine doses have been administered globally, over 83% went to high-income or upper middle-income countries, while low-income countries only received 0.2%. Further, what was described as Big Pharma’s “current company-controlled production sharing agreements” weren’t coming close to addressing this gross inequity.
Shameful New Zealand government complicity
Big Pharma vigorously opposed the waiver and insisted on maintaining their monopoly control over how much and where COVID-19 vaccines can be produced, how they are priced, and to whom they are sold.
At the 14 April WTO meeting Big Pharma’s lobbyists succeeding in blocking the TRIPS waiver despite the overwhelming global call to support it. In addition to the United States, opposition included the European Union, Canada, Australia and, shamefully, New Zealand.
Big Pharma’s April success hasn’t stopped the waiver campaign which was been given further dramatic impetus by the unfolding humanitarian emergency in India, one of the two countries sponsoring the waiver. New Zealand’s support for Big Pharma’s greed driven position is a disgrace and is the complete opposite of whatever kindness is supposed to be.
It now appears that in response to India’s crisis, along with the continuing international campaign the United States now appears to have undertaken a u-turn to support the waiver. It may well be that New Zealand will follow and do likewise.
But its conduct further destroys the credibility of a government that claims to be transformational that it only does the right after the country where much of Big Pharma is based reverses its position.
Ian Powell was Executive Director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, the professional union representing senior doctors and dentists in New Zealand, for over 30 years, until December 2019. He is now a health systems, labour market, and political commentator living in the small river estuary community of Otaihanga (the place by the tide). First published at Otaihanga Second Opinion.