Awash in vaccine, now Canada plans to share with other countries. Is it too little, too late?
June 15, 2021
It’s a staple of flight attendant wisdom: You must secure your own oxygen mask before trying to help others.
And that seems to have been the mindset for the planet’s wealthiest countries, including Canada, during the initial race to get their citizens vaccinated against COVID-19.
Now, with that rollout in such countries well underway, they’re turning to the rest of the world -- a pivot global health experts say is too little, too late for the many nations that have been left gasping for breath.
This weekend, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed to sending a total of 100 million doses abroad by the end of the year. It’s a slice of an overall one-billion-dose pledge made by the assembled nations of the G7.
Of Canada’s committed doses, 87 million have been paid for by already announced funding. The other 13 million, confirmed International Development Minister Karina Gould, are the remainder of the doses Canada had purchased for itself from the global vaccine sharing program known as COVAX.
Canada has been a major donor to COVAX, which is a global vaccine sharing scheme designed to make doses accessible to the developing world. Though it had the right to do so, Canada was heavily criticized for withdrawing doses from COVAX when it announced the move.
Gould told the Star on Monday that Canada will take no more doses from the initiative for its own use.
The decision to give the doses back is a reflection of the fact that this country is now relatively flush with vaccine --something most of the world cannot say.
Global health experts say the commitments seen at the G7 summit, which saw leaders such as the U.K.’s Boris Johnson speak out against so-called vaccine nationalism, is still just a drop in the bucket. The bucket, in this case, being a planet of almost eight billion people, many of whom will need to get two doses of vaccine if the global pandemic is going to be brought to a halt.
Advocates say Canada’s donation is relatively small --and that seven million of the shots are to be from a company called Novavax, whose vaccine has yet to be authorized for use in Canada or anywhere else.
But Gould maintains that this is a process, and it won’t be the last donation. She’s also quick to reassure Canadians that none of this will affect the rollout here.
“We’ve tried to be very careful in terms of making sure that once we know what’s excess, we can donate them,” she says.
A new poll shows the line that Canadian government officials will have to walk. An Angus Reid poll, released Monday, found seven in 10 Canadians are against sending doses abroad until everyone within our borders has gotten a chance to get both jabs.
The argument for sharing, as global health experts put it, is two-fold. There is a moral argument to help other countries while people continue to die, but also a selfish one: As long as the virus spreads around the world, Canadians will remain vulnerable to new variants and renewed waves of disease.
It’s a perspective that Gould echoes --she speaks of the “moral imperative” of helping other countries. “But there’s also a self interest that, as Canadians, we’re only really going to be safe once the whole world is safe.”
The response of Canada and other wealthy nations so far has disappointed some observers.
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic; this is a global public health emergency,” says Jason Nickerson, an Ontario-based humanitarian affairs adviser for Doctors Without Borders.
“Canada’s got a portfolio with more than 400 million doses, and a population of 38 million. I don’t understand why we’re not moving quicker to free up donations.”
Early on in the pandemic, Canada was one of a handful of countries that hedged its bets by signing prepurchase agreements with multiple vaccine makers, essentially guaranteeing a spot in line should a dose prove successful. At that point, no one knew which of the vaccines would eventually work, so it was akin to backing a bunch of different horses in the race.
The result of that strategy has been that the Canadian government got its hands on multiple leading vaccines relatively early on, but still has claim to enough doses to vaccinate the national population 10 times over.
Canada wasn’t the only country to do this. As a result, for months, the lion’s share of the world’s vaccines have poured into a handful of wealthy countries while the rest of the world has had to wait.
Some countries have been quicker to send the cavalry abroad, experts say.
Russia and China have been sending shipments of their vaccines abroad for months, though questions have been raised about the efficacy of some of their shots. More recently, the U.S. announced its first plan to share 80 million doses to other countries by the end of June, while the U.K. pledged 30 million by the end of the year.
Canada, in particular, has been thin on details, experts say. While we’ve donated millions of dollars to COVAX, this weekend marks the first commitment to send some of our own surplus shots.
Right now, the push for wealthy countries to send vaccines elsewhere is a necessary Band-Aid, says Dr. Ananya Tina Banerjee, an assistant professor of public health at McGill University.
For as long as global health problems are solved by what is essentially voluntary donations there will always be a divide between the rich and the poor, she adds.
In some ways, COVID is following in the footsteps of the fight against AIDS, she says. That, too, was a global pandemic, but while western countries were able to get it largely under control, thanks to expensive pharmaceuticals, poorer countries remain reliant on donations and foreign aid and continue to battle what is still an active threat.
“At this point, it’s clear that low-income countries have charitable status, and that they have to wait upon the convenience of high-income countries, particularly, the U.K. and the U.S., where the vast majority of vaccines are being produced.”
Banerjee would rather wealthy countries take action that would spread vaccine research and production around.
For example, countries such as India and South Africa have been pushing for months for what is known as the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Waiver, known as the TRIPS Waiver for short, that would eliminate intellectual property for COVID-19 vaccines and allow them to be manufactured by other companies.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the pitch to the G7 again over the weekend.
Gould says Canada remains open to TRIPS and officials see their role to be bringing different countries together to build consensus on things such as vaccine production and supply chains. Still, there has been no decision yet.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said, according to the BBC, “The world was looking to us to reject some of the selfish, nationalistic approaches that marred the initial global response to the pandemic and to channel all our diplomatic, economic and scientific might to defeating COVID for good.”
But Banerjee worries that Canadians aren’t yet getting that message. She points to the pushback, some of it hateful, she gets whenever she tweets about global vaccine equity.
The time is coming, she argues, when Canadians are going to realize that travel and trade and even normal life won’t fully return until the virus is under control in other parts of the world.People “really need to understand that the pandemic is not going to be over for us as Canadians unless it’s over for everyone.”