On Oct. 31, 2020, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged that “Canada will donate the equivalent of at least 200 million doses to the COVAX Facility by the end of 2022.” That was to include at least 50 million doses procured in excess of domestic needs, and cash to procure and deliver the balance.
Yet, to date, Canada has shipped a mere 14.2 million doses of vaccine to COVAX – a global vaccine-sharing initiative jointly co-ordinated by the World Health Organization, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance. Another 762,000 doses of AstraZeneca shots were donated directly to Latin American and Caribbean nations.
Still, Canadian officials have repeatedly claimed that Canada is committed to vaccine equity and has donated funds that are “the equivalent of” 87 million doses.
We have details of the almost 15 million doses that have been physically shipped, but it is unclear what the weaselly words “the equivalent of” really mean.
Presumably, this refers to the $700-million in cash Canada has provided to COVAX to purchase vaccines. But there are no details about what the money has purchased. How many doses? What kind? At what price? And, most importantly, how many doses have actually got into the arms of people in low- and middle-income countries?
We do know that 2.8 billion doses have been donated by all participants to COVAX but only 1.4 billion doses have been delivered in 145 countries. This slow start is not the fault of COVAX.
There have been 11.7 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered in the past 18 months, with wealthy countries such as Canada gobbling up most of the supply.
This has created gross inequity: About 80 per cent of people in high-income countries have received at least one dose, compared with just 14 per cent in low-income countries.
Canada likes to think of itself as a generous country. But, during COVID-19, we acquired a well-earned reputation as a vaccine hoarder.
Canada has spent upwards of $9-billion and signed agreements to procure more than 500 million doses of vaccine from eight different suppliers. (Again, the contracts are shrouded in secrecy so we don’t know how much vaccines actually cost.)
We have needed only a fraction of those doses – 84.8 million – and the vaccines used domestically are almost all Pfizer and Moderna.
Canada scrambled to give away the stocks of AstraZeneca vaccine it had. We also have a tendency to give away doses that are about to expire, and that can leave countries receiving them in a bind. It also leaves the impression that we are only donating second-rate products – the stuff at the back of the fridge that’s starting to smell, if you will.
There is a real risk vaccines could expire and be wasted.
Already, at least 1.5 million doses have been trashed since January. There are other reports that 10 to 20 per cent of doses in some provinces are going into the garbage.
In a pandemic-ravaged world where three billion people have yet to receive a single dose of COVID-19 vaccine, there is really no excuse for this happening.
At the very least, we could be sharing our surpluses with countries in need. Yet, the last donation Canada made was on March 25, when we shipped 21,600 doses to Madagascar.
Charity also has its limits – even when promises are fully followed through.
As Dr. Madhukar Pai, the Canada research chair in epidemiology and global health, told the House of Commons foreign affairs committee recently, developing countries should be producing their own vaccines, not depending on hand-me-downs.
For this to happen, there needs to be a temporary suspension of patent laws and transfer of technology (as has been done successfully to allow the production of low-cost AIDS drugs). But Canada has not been supportive of a so-called TRIPS waiver.
All of this calls into question Canada’s commitment to equity, past, present and future.
To quote Dr. Pai again: “The selfishness, greed and myopia of the richest countries in the world that we have seen the naked display of in the last two years, I’m 100 per cent convinced in the next crisis, we will behave the exact same way.”
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