The federal government is donating its remaining doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca to international vaccination efforts, after the shot was sidelined by Canadian health officials and as COVID-19 case counts climb in the developing world.
Canada will donate 17.7 million doses of the vaccine that it had already purchased through its direct contract with AstraZeneca, Procurement Minister Anita Anand announced at a joint press conference on Monday with International Development Minister Karina Gould. The donation is in addition to the 13 million doses Canada has already agreed to forgo through COVAX. The not-for profit program supplies vaccines primarily to lower-income countries.
“The decision to donate was made after we heard from the provinces and territories that the demands for AstraZeneca vaccines within their jurisdictions had been met,” Ms. Anand said. “We are making sure that we are meeting demand here at home for vaccines prior to making the decision to donate.”
Provinces stopped using AstraZeneca for first doses because of the viral vector vaccine’s link to a rare but serious blood clot. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization, an independent federal panel, gave preference to using mRNA vaccines, made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, because they were increasingly available in Canada and not linked to the side effect.
Health Canada authorized AstraZeneca and maintains it is safe and effective. The vaccine was key to Britain’s vaccination program and has also been approved by the World Health Organization.
“AstraZeneca is still very much highly in demand around the world,” Ms. Gould said.
The AstraZeneca vaccine is also an important part of international vaccination efforts because it is easier to transport in countries that don’t have ultracold storage chains, said David Morley, president and chief executive of UNICEF Canada.
The government said the 17.7 million AstraZeneca vaccines will be delivered through COVAX primarily to Caribbean and Latin American countries and shipments will start in the “coming weeks.” Neither minister was able to clarify when all the doses will be delivered.
The so-far uncertain timing of Canada’s donation could be a major problem for the recipient countries. COVAX is predicting a severe shortage of deliveries in July and August, followed by a potentially excessive September and October supply that could overwhelm the capacities of lower-income countries.
“COVAX deliveries will continue to be very lean through July and August,” a recent statement from the program said. “COVAX has been urging donors to share doses in the third quarter … to avoid the possibility of COVAX participants’ health systems becoming too stretched by the volume of deliveries later in the year.”
With Africa suffering a third wave of the pandemic, and deaths rising by 43 per cent in the latest reported week, the continent could be facing a fourth wave before the end of the year if vaccines continue to be delayed, health experts say.
Less than 3 per cent of Africans have received even a single dose of vaccines so far, compared with about 70 per cent of Canadians.
“The global gap in vaccine supply is hugely uneven and inequitable,” said the WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, at a media briefing on Monday.
“Some countries and regions are actually ordering millions of booster doses, before other countries have had supplies to vaccinate their health workers and most vulnerable,” he said.
While the WHO director-general did not cite Canada explicitly, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced in April that the country had struck a deal with Pfizer to buy booster shots.
Instead of prioritizing the supply of boosters for well-vaccinated countries, Pfizer and Moderna should be channelling their supplies to lower-income countries, Dr. Tedros said.
By the end of July Canada will receive 68 million vaccines, enough to vaccinate all eligible people. And by the end of September that number will climb to 98 million, including 95 million doses from Pfizer and Moderna.
In a statement, the NDP decried Monday’s announcement as “shameful,” noting it falls well short of the 100 million shots Canada pledged to donate in June. The federal government has said its financial contributions have already helped COVAX buy 87 million shots.
Unlike contracts with other companies, the unredacted versions of Canada’s contracts with Moderna and Pfizer don’t address donating excess shots. Ms. Anand told reporters the government is talking to all of the companies about sharing doses, but she said any doses will only be donated once its determined there’s excess supply.
“We are making sure that we have the supply on hand of these vaccines to be able to serve the needs of Canadians in the short and the long term,” she said.
Pfizer said Monday that it supports Canada donating vaccines to other countries, but provided no specifics.
Mr. Morley was at the press conference with the ministers to launch the Give A Vax Matching Fund. The federal government has agreed to match up to $10-million in donations to UNICEF Canada for the group’s vaccination campaign. If the total goal is reached, the government said that would cover the vaccine administration costs for four million people.
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