Jillian Kohler is a professor at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy and the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto and a director at the WHO Collaborating Centre for Governance, Transparency and Accountability in the Pharmaceutical Sector.
Last year, the Trudeau government stated its aim to fight COVID-19 globally by helping developing countries get access to vaccines. As vaccine deployment has begun in earnest in some countries such as Israel and Britain, horrifically slowly and erratically as in the case of Canada, and not at all in many others, most in the low-income category, we’ve seen Canada’s actions fall short of its earlier noble goals.
What we are witnessing is hardly a global collective effort to ensure we advance equity of access to COVID-19 vaccines, particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable nations. Instead, the ugly glare of a “my-nation-first” approach does not seem to be dimming any time soon, with clear winners and losers in the global race for COVID-19 vaccine deployment.
Canada is in the unenviable position of advancing a “my-nation-first” approach without having a secure and reliable supply of vaccines for its population, thanks to the incredible shoddiness of the Trudeau government’s vaccine-purchasing plans. Even though the government rushed to secure an abundance of supply, sloppy attention to detail has resulted in our supply slowing to a trickle. The glibness of the government in terms of its earlier assurances to Canadians that we did not need to worry about our own vaccine-access issues now seems outright offensive, if it not did earlier on. Somehow, it seemed feasible only a few months ago that Canadians would have a secure and reliable vaccine supply and still be able to offer a lending hand to those countries in need.
But the depth of the government’s unpreparedness and incredible disregard for the neediest members of the global population became painfully obvious, not only to Canadians but the global community, when last week it was revealed that Canada plans to use COVAX for Canadians. While the details remain murky, we do know that Canada is supposed to receive as many as 1.9 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine through the program by this summer.
COVAX is part of a multilateral initiative co-led by the World Health Organization, the Coalition of Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and Gavi, the vaccine alliance. COVAX as a concept is laudable. It was put together in May of last year to hasten the pace of research, development and, what is significant here, the equitable distribution of diagnostics, drugs and vaccines against COVID-19. It also is an important institutional space for global co-operation in terms of vaccine supply and deployment. The COVAX Facility has the stated aim of “fair and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines worldwide.”
The COVID-19 vaccine is a global public good with clear benefits that extend to all countries. Its deployment demands collective action; the critical need for individual countries to not act in their own national interest, but rather in the interest of a global community, is as critical as ever. The reality also remains that unless we have global collective action that ensures equity of access for all populations, the COVID-19 pandemic will not end any time soon.
The Canadian government, in its rush to fix its bad planning and programming, particularly with a federal election in mind, seems to be forgetting what duties and responsibilities we have to the most vulnerable populations in the global community. And, yes, while Canada most certainly has the right, on paper, to access vaccines through COVAX, we are the only G7 country to tap into this supply. The fact that we are turning to it as a beneficiary does not come without serious costs to Canadian global-health diplomacy. This move will not be forgotten any time soon, particularly for the poor and marginalized populations that are last in line to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.