Ubaka Ogbogu is an associate professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Alberta. Lorian Hardcastle is an associate professor in the Faculty of Law and Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary.
After more than a year of a devastating and deadly pandemic, there is now a remarkable bounty of vaccines. But while countries are expected to prioritize their national interests, many of them – including Canada – have acquired stocks that far exceed their needs and without consideration of global demand trends relative to available supply. High-income countries have purchased 55 per cent of the worldwide vaccine supplies, even though they only account for 16 per cent of the world’s population; Ottawa, for its part, has contracts in place that total five times our population. This lopsided supply in favour of affluent nations means that poorer countries are not expected to have access to vaccines until 2023.
This nationalistic approach to vaccine procurement is counterproductive, ineffective, and likely to only increase the global impact of COVID-19.
Without a global approach to vaccine distribution, it is likely that disease variants will emerge in unvaccinated countries, including some for which existing vaccines may be ineffective. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), has expressed concern over vaccine nationalism, noting that it will result in a “slow global economic recovery” and a “catastrophic moral failure” that could further widen global inequality. One modelling study found that if the first three billion vaccine doses were distributed proportionally by population, worldwide deaths would fall by 61 per cent; if doses were monopolized by 47 of the world’s wealthiest countries, however, deaths would only fall by 33 per cent.
Countries are also implementing legal barriers that restrict access to vaccines. In January, 2021, the European Union passed a regulation requiring vaccine manufacturers to seek permission from member states before exporting to countries outside of the EU. Italy blocked a shipment of 250,000 doses destined for Australia, and India is similarly restricting exports. Britain and the U.S. have similarly been criticized for their approach to exports.
Wealthy nations are also attempting to block a request, led by India and China and involving dozens of middle- and low-income countries, as well as hundreds of civil society organizations, to waive restrictions under international trade agreements that would allow for production of generic and lower-cost versions of COVID-19 vaccines. Some of the countries opposing the efforts manufacture their own vaccines and thus may be acting at the behest of drug companies. Nixing this proposal would deepen the divide between vaccine haves and have-nots, and it would prevent the resumption of international trading activities that pave the way to a smoother global economic recovery. World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is now calling on drug companies to voluntarily permit others to manufacture their vaccines pending the resolution of the trade dispute.
Canada has been criticized for drawing from COVAX, a global initiative aimed at facilitating equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), GAVI (The Vaccine Alliance), and the WHO. This program collects funds from wealthier countries in order to support vaccine development, production and pooling of supplies, and to serve as a hub for equitable global distribution. Although Canada is legally entitled to COVAX supplies, it was one of few wealthy countries to draw on them; the government also did so while simultaneously procuring vaccines directly from manufacturers. By feeding from both ends of the trough, Canada and other affluent nations undercut COVAX’s ability to acquire vaccines for distribution to countries that lack purchasing power, for whom the initiative was originally intended.
To make matters worse, vaccine manufacturers are reportedly charging lower-income countries more for vaccine supplies. In one example, Uganda recently announced a deal to purchase vaccines from AstraZeneca at roughly triple the cost of what the EU paid.
At the provincial level, several Canadian premiers are also adding to the divisiveness around vaccine procurement. For example, Manitoba’s Brian Pallister has signed a deal with a Canadian supplier for vaccines that have not yet been approved by Health Canada. And Alberta’s Jason Kenney expressed concern with the pace at which Health Canada approved AstraZeneca, declaring that he would look into whether provinces could approve and procure the vaccine. Given that the law does not provide for such a process, he may have merely been jockeying for political support.
Given increasing globalization and the movement of goods and people across international borders, it is imperative that countries think of infectious diseases as concerns of a global health and human rights nature, rather than merely domestic issues. Otherwise, global inequity and moral improbity will continue to masquerade as national interest.
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