Canada and other G7 countries have announced a sharp increase in financing for COVID-19 vaccines in lower-income countries, but the G7 summit has failed to endorse a French proposal for an immediate redistribution of a small fraction of vaccine supplies from wealthy countries to poorer regions such as Africa.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Friday that Canada will join the expanded effort by providing $75-million for vaccine supplies under the COVAX program -- which primarily helps poorer countries -- and other global programs for COVID-19 treatments and tests. This brings Canada’s total contribution to $940-million for these programs.
The United States, Germany, Japan and the European Union also announced an increase in vaccine funds, allocating about US$4-billion in additional support for COVAX.
But in their statement after the summit on Friday, the leaders of the Group of Seven major economies did not mention a proposal by French President Emmanuel Macron for rich countries to urgently send up to 5 per cent of their current vaccine supplies to Africa and elsewhere in the developing world.
The United States, while announcing an immediate $2-billion in additional funds for COVAX, rejected the idea of sharing its own supply with poorer countries at this stage. “We’re not at that point yet,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Friday. “Our priority and our focus is on vaccinating the American people.”
Earlier this week, Mr. Macron warned of “an unprecedented acceleration of global inequality” as a result of the world’s vaccine supply going largely to wealthy countries that placed huge advance orders. So far, about 75 per cent of COVID-19 vaccinations have occurred in 10 of the world’s richest and largest economies, while about 130 countries in the developing world have been unable to vaccinate anyone.
The COVAX program, hampered by limited funding and the difficulty of competing for fiercely sought supplies from producers, is expected to provide doses for a maximum of 27 per cent of the population in the developing world by the end of this year – far less than the forecast percentage in the world’s wealthy countries. Moreover, COVAX has not yet been able to deliver a single dose. It aims to begin in late February or early March.
The advocacy group ONE, in an analysis released this week, said the world’s wealthy countries could share nearly one billion of their vaccine doses with poorer countries and still retain enough to inoculate their populations.
In a statement after their summit on Friday, the G7 leaders pledged to increase the world’s manufacturing capacity for COVID-19 vaccines, including through the voluntary licensing of vaccine technology – a strategy that many health experts have been urging for the past year.
Mr. Trudeau, at a news conference on Friday, was asked whether he supported Mr. Macron’s call for an urgent redistribution of a fraction of the existing vaccine supplies in wealthy countries. He did not answer directly, but said the G7 countries are looking at “allocations of vaccines” to speed up global immunization.
“We recognize that even as we vaccinate our most vulnerable populations in Canada and in our own countries, there is a need to accelerate the vaccination, particularly of vulnerable peoples around the world, and the G7 is committed to looking at ways to do just that,” Mr. Trudeau said in response to questions from The Globe and Mail.
The World Health Organization has called for wealthy countries to begin redistributing their expected surplus vaccines as soon as they have immunized their health workers and older people.
Asked whether he supported this proposal, Mr. Trudeau said: “Absolutely. Once we’ve vaccinated the most vulnerable, we should also look at the most vulnerable around the world. It is part of our collective responsibility. And that is an ongoing conversation that the G7 is leading on.”
International Development Minister Karina Gould did not offer any specifics on sharing with poorer countries. “We have committed to share excess doses, and the conversations about when that would take place are ongoing,” she said on Friday.
Canada is among several countries that have pledged to donate their surpluses to COVAX, but most have not clearly stated when they would do this, leading to concerns that they will vaccinate their entire populations first.
Oxfam Canada, which has campaigned for vaccine equity, said it welcomed the additional COVAX financing. But COVAX alone is insufficient to meet the threat of the pandemic, it said.
“Making huge parts of Africa and Asia wait for unwanted, leftover vaccines from rich countries’ stocks is not just immoral, it is irresponsible,” said a statement by Diana Sarosi, director of policy and campaigns at Oxfam Canada.
Jason Nickerson, humanitarian affairs adviser at Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders), said the additional money from G7 countries is important, but it should be accompanied by the immediate sharing of vaccine doses.
“This cannot be just the leftovers,” he told The Globe and Mail. “If governments and pharmaceutical companies don’t get this right and don’t act quickly, we risk generating new pandemics of variants that could evade current vaccines.”
With a report from Adrian Morrow in Washington
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