A leading medical doctors’ organisation is calling on the Australian government to support the call for more COVID-19 vaccines being made available to poorer countries and to speed the rollout to frontline services within the country.

The president of Doctors Reform Society of Australia, Dr Tim Woodruff, has called on the Australian government to “first urge governments around the world to demand that the World Trade Organisation temporarily waiver the IP (Intellectual Property) agreements so that poorer countries can ramp up their own production (of COVID-19) vaccines or use generics made in other countries. That is what India and South Africa have already proposed. Secondly, the Government could fund poorer nations to set up the production facilities in their own country.”

The vice-president of the organisation, Dr Con Costa, told Neos Kosmos that Australia should be helping poorer nations to vaccinate their people as this would not only reduce the number of infections in those countries but would also lessen the risk of virus mutations developing that could be immune to current vaccines.

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Australia has supported the United Nations (COVAX) initiative to roll out of the vaccine to poorer nations but Dr Costa said this has only the capacity to vaccinate three percent of the population initially going up to 20 percent eventually which is nowhere near enough. For a vaccination programme to be effective, it needed 70 to 80 percent coverage to achieve effective herd immunity.

“This is because of the vaccine patents and free trade agreements that are protecting the large pharmaceutical companies (and keeping  vaccine prices high),” said Dr Costa.

“This is a world pandemic and profits are taking precedence over prevention of the spread of the virus and enabling the development of mutations that may override the vaccines. In the 1980s and 1990s the Aids pandemic was brought under control because governments ignored the pharmaceutical company patents that made treatment too expensive for poorer nations which were then able to buy cheaper generic AIDS drugs from India.”

Dr Costa said that there were concerns about the slow pace of the roll out in Australia, particularly for people working in frontline professions at most risk of contracting the virus.

He said that as a general practitioner (GP) who is in the next tier after the frontline services to be vaccinated, he and his staff could expect to receive the vaccine from mid-April.

Dr Costa said he was not allowed to comment on the efficacy of the two Covid vaccines used in Australia – the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine; and Oxford/Astrazeneca. The rollout of the latter vaccine has been suspended in several countries following reports of adverse reactions by some of the people vaccinated – most recently, Cyprus suspended the Oxford/Astrazeneca vaccine today (Tuesday, 16 March).

“It is the first time in my 30 years as a GP that I cannot discuss what is the right treatment with a patient. This is not really an ideal situation if you want people to come forward to be vaccinated. Full transparency is needed to get a high rate of vaccination,” said Dr Costa.

“But mainly we are concerned about the fact that Australia is planning to stockpile five doses per person and the US will stockpile 10 doses per person while the poorer countries are waiting at the end of the line and the virus keeps mutating and spreading.”

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