Our Prime Minister has been outspoken on the need for an equitable global vaccine rollout; now Omicron makes this the perfect time to start walking the talk, says Edward Miller

I wrote this article seven months ago, and am frustrated to have to write it again. Then it was India and the emergence of Delta that represented a new – much more deadly – phase of the pandemic.

Now Omicron has emerged in Sub-Saharan Africa, where Covid hospitalisations have risen sharply, spreading quickly around the world, including to Netherlands, Denmark, Israel, Japan and Australia.

While it may take months to chart variant’s precise immunology (South African scientists involved in sequencing the variant have hypothesised that it may have evolved in an individual with undiagnosed HIV/AIDS), what now seems startlingly clear is that this variant is the product of a brutal system of vaccine apartheid, engineered by our global trading rules.

Vaccine apartheid

Fourteen months ago, India and South Africa jointly proposed a temporary relaxation of WTO intellectual property rules so the world’s pharmaceutical industries could be put to work producing enough vaccine doses and related treatments to ensure everyone seeking vaccinations and treatment could access them, and together we could end the global pandemic.

The TRIPS waiver (named after the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) now has the support of the vast majority of humanity, with only a handful of rich countries – those which now enjoy some of the highest vaccination rates on the planet – refusing to support it.

Official data shows that since the waiver was proposed 4.1 million people have died, 78 percent of all Covid deaths.

However estimates of excess mortality show that not only is this likely much higher (7 to 13 million by May 2021), but more concentrated in poor countries, with mortality rates estimated to be 12 times higher for lower-middle income countries and 35 times higher for low income countries.

These estimates reflect the global vaccination gap – lower-middle income countries have administered fewer than half the number of doses per capita of high income countries, while high income countries have administered 21 times the number of doses per capita of low income countries.

Pre-Omicron, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development had warned that by the failure to rollout vaccines could knock $1.5 trillion off Global South incomes. Now with Omicron, the combined impact of new social restrictions, racist travel bans and tumbling stock markets could put development back even further for the poorest countries in the world.

Towards a waiver

Seven months ago I said New Zealand was part of the problem, refusing to support such a waiver. By some strange coincidence, the very next day US President Joe Biden decided to support a vaccine waiver, and within hours New Zealand’s policy had changed with it (by tweet no less).

Today I believe New Zealand can play a pivotal role in pushing for a real solution.

There are now three major holdouts to the TRIPS waiver becoming a reality: Switzerland, UK and the EU. Omicron is already breaking up this club, with Norway finally getting the message over the weekend and choosing to back the waiver.

Switzerland has realised the gravity of Omicron, announcing travel restrictions on Saturday that led to the indefinite postponement of the World Trade Organization MC12 meeting.

Ironically, that was the meeting in which the vast majority of the world’s population would again assert the demand for a temporary relaxation of protections for Covid-related intellectual property rights. Whether this will give Switzerland a chance to reconsider their position remains to be seen.

That leaves the EU and UK, both of which are currently negotiating free trade agreements with New Zealand. Now is the time for our Government to start using its diplomatic muscle to exert maximum pressure on these countries.

Leveraging bilateral pressure for global demands

In most trade agreement negotiations, New Zealand is seen as the relatively weaker party since we’re a small island nation reliant on trade. On the surface that would appear to be the case in the NZ-UK free trade agreement.

However for post-Brexit UK, the NZ agreement is crucial because it unlocks Britain’s access to the so-called Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the phoenix agreement that emerged from the ashes of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement once Trump pulled the US out (allowing the remaining parties to remove some of its more offensive provisions).

Every other CPTPP member now supports a vaccine waiver, and it doesn’t seem a difficult condition to impose on the UK. New Zealand should lead the way, building support for the TRIPS waiver into the NZ-UK deal. Embedding support for a TRIPS Waiver into the CPTPP would be a crucial step towards making good on its promise to be a progressive trade agreement.

Parallel negotiations with the EU would play on the latent competitiveness between the EU and UK. The EU has worked hard to include social and environmental obligations in its trade agreement negotiating mandate, and would be loath to appear less progressive than post-Brexit Britain (a decision that appeared motivated by regressive populism).

And, with a new Government close to being formed in Germany – the main resistance to a TRIPS waiver within the EU – there are signs of a possible change in direction. Diplomatic pressure will be important, and NZ’s negotiations could prove a crucial domain.

New Zealand prides itself on its moral compass on the international stage, and our Prime Minister has been outspoken on the need for an equitable global vaccine rollout as well as the need for a more progressive trade policy.

Now, as the emergence of Omicron again threatens global public health and equity, is a perfect time to start walking the talk on these crucial objectives.

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