Media release: Government urged to prioritise access to COVID supplies and vaccine ahead of trade rules

22 Apr 2020 2:44 PM | Anonymous

Government urged to prioritise access to COVID supplies and vaccine ahead of trade rules

“Working in cancer, every day I see the suffering and concern caused by unrestricted pharmaceutical pricing.  Because of IP rules, whānau are being charged a King’s ransom for medicines that will help keep their loved ones alive.  

 
Now there is the chance this will be repeated across the whole of society, as corporations seek to profit from tests and treatments for COVID-19”, warns Dr George Laking, a medical oncologist from Whakatohea speaking on behalf of Doctors for Healthy Trade.

As countries search for a treatment or vaccine for COVID-19, New Zealand needs to ensure access to affordable supplies from offshore, without being held to ransom by pharmaceutical companies or waiting in a long queue behind countries with more influence or deeper pockets.

Two open letters, signed by international and national organisations, have been sent to the Minister of Health and Minister of Trade this week urging them to address concerns that the World Trade Organization’s intellectual property rules could prevent New Zealand’s ability to secure affordable access to medical supplies, especially vaccines and potential medicines to treat COVID-19 that are currently being developed.

One letter was addressed to a small group of countries, including New Zealand, who pledged back in 2003 not to use flexibilities in the WTO agreement on intellectual property that would allow them to import medicines made under compulsory licences in another country, even in a medical emergency.

“It is totally irrational for New Zealand to keep its own hands tied, as it prepares to meet the COVID-19 needs of its population, by voluntarily shutting itself off from patented ingredients, components, and essential medical products and supplies”, says Prudence Stone, CEO of the Public Health Association of New Zealand, who co-signed the letter with Sarah Dalton, the Executive Director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS).

“New Zealand needs to notify the WTO that it will now import medicines made under compulsory licence elsewhere”

The second letter, signed by nearly 300 international organisations including Médicins sans Frontières Access Campaign, Public Services International and Oxfam International, as well as the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, Doctors for Healthy Trade, the Public Health Association, the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists and the New Zealand Nurses Organisation, called on WTO Members to stop trying to negotiate new agreements by the Internet, in which developing countries could not effectively take part:

“The first and only priority for trade negotiators at this time should be to remove all obstacles, including intellectual property rules, in existing agreements that hinder timely and affordable access to medical supplies, such as lifesaving medicines, devices, diagnostics and vaccines, and the ability of governments to take whatever steps are necessary to address this crisis. …

We call on WTO Members to ensure that all countries have the flexibilities to set aside trade rules that constrain their ability to resolve the pandemic crisis, without fear of repercussions, and to cease other negotiations and activities that divert their energy and resources from that goal.”

The signatories called for a fundamental rethink of the kind of trade rules that encourage such monopolies and put people’s lives at risk in every country of the world.

Contact:

Dr George Laking 0221248262

Prudence Stone 0272898987

Jane Kelsey 021765055 (for WTO information)

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Letter to the Listener 28 July 2017 in response to Fever Pitch (Listener 21 July 2017)

Catherine Woulfe’s thorough investigation of rheumatic fever brings to the surface a range of important questions not only about this cruel disease, but also wider issues about health policy. The Government’s bold initiative to reduce the incidence of rheumatic fever as one of its 'Better Public Service' targets in 2012 certainly raised awareness of rheumatic fever for the general public as well as communities and families directly affected. But even when medical science and the public have a clearer understanding of the immediate causes of rheumatic fever, interventions like the $65m ‘sore throats matter’ still won’t stop the epidemic. 

Ramona Tiatia’s blunt description of the experience of affected families not only painted a picture of the impact on affected families and communities, it also highlighted the invidious choices our health funders face.  How much should we prioritise health spending between response to the urgent need of young people whose lives and potential can be devastated by the disease versus the expense of addressing the economic and social factors that underlie the reasons we have this epidemic at all?   

As several of the clinicians interviewed pointed out, it’s only when the poverty and over-crowded housing issues are addressed that we will make a real difference.

Rheumatic fever illustrates the contradictions in our health system identified in the recent American Commonwealth Fund report. Of the 11 countries the Fund monitors, the work our health professionals do is ranked among the highest. But our overall performance as a health system falls to the middle ranking because of our poor performance on access and equity. The Fund also notes that our per capita expenditure is among the cheapest. 

Failure to invest in real prevention - that is, poverty, housing, good nutrition etc. - will continue to drive conditions like rheumatic fever, whether the immediate cause is strep throat or skin sores, until we invest upstream.

Why not spend more on these conditions - the economic and social determinants of health? 

We all pay in the long run - the young people whose misery we tolerate and whose potential remains unfulfilled, the families whose sacrifices are unrewarded, and the taxpayer who picks up the tab.

Ngā mihi,
Warren Lindberg

CE Public Health Association of New Zealand

                                            

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