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Heather Witzel-Garnhum, nurse clinician, prepares a syringe with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Regina General Hospital on Dec. 15, 2020.Michael Bell /The Canadian Press

In spring of 2020, a new threat, then only theoretical, was given a name: “vaccine nationalism.”

It was first uttered in public, as far as I can tell, by Richard Hatchett, the head of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, an Oslo-based body created in 2017 to ensure that future pandemics could be ended quickly through shared international efforts.

A year ago, his organization helped co-ordinate the development of COVID-19 vaccines, and the world generally listened. Vaccines were ready for international distribution months ahead of expectations, with some systems in place, such as the COVAX vaccine pool, to distribute them to have-not countries.

Almost a year later, tides have turned and vaccine nationalism is a looming threat. A number of countries – including Canada – are at risk of abandoning their larger health and economic interests for the short-term goal of getting their people vaccinated a few months ahead of other countries.

“Vaccine nationalism is not just morally indefensible,” World Health Organization head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned last week. “It is epidemiologically self-defeating and clinically counterproductive.” By trying to get your country served earlier, you cause an uneven and delayed international vaccination that will accelerate the rise of mutant variants and make the disease hit your country and its economy harder.

This self-defeating paradox is driven home in a new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which shows that if we don’t get poorer countries vaccinated fast, wealthy countries such as Canada will bear almost half the costs of the resulting global crisis “even if they achieve universal vaccination in their own countries.”

To be clear: When national leaders, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, talk about “domestic production capacity” as a solution to this short-term concern, they are toying with an idea that could make this pandemic and future ones lengthier, deadlier and more economically devastating.

Domestic production capacity should not become a determinant of a country’s ability to vaccinate its population. So far, it is not one. Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands – home to major vaccine factories – are having political crises because their people have had to wait months to receive vaccines manufactured within their own borders.

That’s because the European Union, in making vaccine contracts, followed its normal, cautious procurement procedures and as a consequence won’t get delivery until after other countries, such as Britain, that took the risk of overriding usual procedures. In short, having a vaccine factory within your borders by itself confers no advantage.

Canada is in a similar bind. Although Health Canada signed contracts earlier and for more doses than most other countries, the government assumed those doses wouldn’t be approved until early spring of 2021, and signed fairly rigid delivery contracts accordingly. This was not especially attentive or responsible of the Trudeau government, but it doesn’t mean Canada would be in a better position if it was home to a vaccine plant.

That needs to be repeated. There are good reasons to be building more vaccine plants, such as the federally funded one set to be opened by Canada’s Human Health Therapeutics Research Centre. But vaccinating your own populations faster is not one.

Imagine if Canada had this plant running in March, 2020. There are three possible scenarios. One is that it would have been like most commercial vaccine facilities, meaning that we would have spent December and January watching the plant deliver vaccines to Britain and the United States, because they contracted with it for earlier delivery. We’d be having the same political crisis as is happening in Germany.

In the second scenario, it only produces vaccines for Canadians – our commitments to the developing world be damned. And we paid for it, so we sure have to rely on it. If it happens to have licensed a vaccine that got approved early, some Canadians would be lucky – but it’s equally likely it would have licensed a late-approval vaccine, or would have been slower to tool up than overseas plants. Rather than spreading the risk across seven producers in many countries, we’d be betting everything on a single, taxpayer-funded coin toss.

The third scenario happens after every country has gone this route: Canada has to have a vaccine plant because everyone else has banned vaccine exports and turned to “domestic production capacity.” Only here does a plant make sense domestically – but at a terrible cost to Canadians and to all of humanity, one that could prolong the pandemic by years.

If we really want to help ourselves, we’d be better off spending a few billion dollars more by building up the COVAX vaccine pool for poor countries – rather than selfishly drawing from it.

Waiting is hard. But it’s better than letting the world burn.

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