A new pledge of more than 50 million doses has boosted a campaign by a dozen high-income countries to share their vaccine stocks with poorer countries, but the federal government says it is still too early for Canada to contribute any of its doses.
The World Health Organization has been urging rich countries to begin sharing their COVID-19 vaccines to reduce a drastic global shortage that has stalled the vaccination rollout in most of the world’s poorest countries. Five countries announced on Wednesday that they are adding 54 million doses to the dose-sharing plan.
The announcement was made at a conference in Japan, where countries and organizations pledged an additional US$2.4-billion to the COVAX program, the main source of vaccines for low-income countries.
In Africa and other low-income regions, ambitious plans to obtain vaccines from COVAX have been delayed as shortages grow. A shortage of 190 million doses is expected by the end of this month, largely because a key exporter in India has diverted its production to the domestic market.
Of the 1.8 billion vaccines administered globally so far, only 0.4 per cent have gone to low-income countries. “This is ethically, epidemiologically and economically unacceptable,” said the WHO’s Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in a statement on Wednesday.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in an appeal to donors at the fundraising conference in Japan, called on wealthy countries to share a billion vaccine doses with lower-income countries as urgently as possible.
Because of the massive surpluses that rich countries are building up, the donation of a billion doses would not compromise the vaccination programs in those countries, and would allow poorer countries to immunize hundreds of millions of health workers and other people, “saving lives, reducing the risk of new variants emerging and helping control the pandemic,” the foundation said.
Canada, however, is not yet ready to share its vaccines, a federal official said.
“Canada has committed to donating vaccine doses when in a position to do so,” said Guillaume Dumas, press secretary to International Development Minister Karina Gould, in response to questions from The Globe and Mail.
“We are not there yet but conversations are ongoing within the government,” he said in an e-mail.
Canada is one of the world’s 20 most highly vaccinated countries, as measured by doses per capita. But it has been criticized for buying doses from COVAX, which could reduce the supply available for other countries. So far Canada has purchased about 970,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from COVAX.
At the Japan conference, Canada announced an additional $220-million in funding for COVAX, although the money will be drawn from a previously announced amount of $375-million that the government allocated last month to the global effort for vaccines, diagnostics and treatments for COVID-19 in low- and middle-income countries.
The COVAX program had aimed to provide enough vaccines for one-fifth of the population in the world’s poorest countries by the end of this year. But there is growing agreement that this is insufficient.
“While vaccinating 20 per cent of each economy’s population will protect the most vulnerable, the work does not stop there,” Ms. Gould told the Japan conference. “We must aim to reach everyone in low- and lower-middle income countries.”
Health analysts have argued that financial contributions to COVAX at this stage are less important than the sharing of vaccine doses, since supply is the main chokepoint.
Dose-sharing pledges were announced on Wednesday by Japan, Spain, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden. Those pledges were in addition to previous promises by the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, New Zealand and the United Arab Emirates.
Critics say they cannot understand why Canada is still declining to make a dose-sharing pledge. “Other countries, with fewer doses in arms and fewer doses secured, are already sharing doses to reach people in low-income countries, or at least making firm commitments to do so,” said Jason Nickerson, humanitarian representative of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in Canada.
“Canada’s financial commitments are helpful, but when there are no vaccines available to buy with that money right now, that impact is much more limited,” he said.
Siham Rayale, a policy and advocacy specialist at Oxfam Canada, said the Canadian financial contribution to COVAX is not enough to tackle the global shortage.
“Vaccine inequity is only growing,” she said. “As the majority of Canadians are getting vaccinated, other countries have barely reached 1 per cent of their population.”
Mr. Nickerson and Ms. Rayale both argued that the best long-term solution to the global shortage is to expand vaccine production by allowing a temporary waiver on patents. A waiver has been supported by more than 100 countries at the World Trade Organization, but Canada has declined to endorse the idea.
In a joint statement this week, the leaders of the WTO, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the WHO called for the removal of “all blockages” to an expanded vaccine supply. “We call on WTO members to accelerate negotiations toward a pragmatic solution around intellectual property,” they said.
Alice Hansen, a spokeswoman for International Trade Minister Mary Ng, said Canada agrees with the call for accelerated negotiations.
Activists, however, see Canada as a big part of the problem. On Thursday, several health advocacy groups plan to march to the Canadian consulate in New York to protest against Canada’s refusal to support the patent waiver. They also plan to march to the consulates of Germany, Britain and the European Union.
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