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A woman wearing a mask to protect against COVID-19 infection passes a community clinic in Cape Town, South Africa, on Thursday. The country has forecast that vaccinations might not start until the second quarter of next year.

Nardus Engelbrecht/The Associated Press

As wealthy countries begin to roll out their COVID-19 vaccine programs, poorer countries are increasingly worried about the barriers that are likely to delay their own access to the vaccines.

Unless the financial and organizational problems are solved, the virus could become endemic across Africa and in other parts of the developing world, experts warned on Thursday.

“It would be extremely terrible if the world watches Africa not receiving vaccines and sees the global North getting the vaccines,” said John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

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“That would really create a moral issue,” he told a media briefing on Thursday. “We’ve all talked about the need to exercise global solidarity. The time to translate those powerful words into action is now.”

Without naming Canada directly, he referred to countries that have ordered several times more doses of the vaccine than their population would require. Canada has secured up to 414 million doses of various vaccines and vaccine candidates, and activists have pointed to Canada as an example of “shopping sprees” and “vaccine hoarding” that could cause unfairness for poorer countries.

“Many Western countries have got vaccines in excess of their needs,” Dr. Nkengasong said. “We find ourselves at a pivotal moment in the history of our continent. Without access to these vaccines in a timely and equitable manner, our whole development will be challenged.”

Even South Africa, the most industrialized African country and one of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic, has forecast that it won’t receive any doses of the vaccines until the second quarter of next year.

Unless Africa obtains enough vaccine doses to vaccinate 60 per cent of its population, COVID-19 could become endemic in Africa, leaving the continent largely excluded from the global economy, he said.

Countries that have secured excess quantities of the vaccines should find a way to provide them to developing countries, Dr. Nkengasong said.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned on Wednesday that “vaccine nationalism” – the phenomenon of wealthy countries grabbing the early supply of the vaccines – is moving “at full speed.”

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The vaccines should be treated as a “global public good” to ensure that poorer countries have fair access, he said.

In 67 lower-income countries, vaccine supplies are likely to cover just 10 per cent of the population unless there is urgent action to help them, according to the People’s Vaccine Alliance, a coalition representing groups such as Oxfam and Amnesty International.

Rich countries with just 14 per cent of the world’s population have purchased 53 per cent of the most promising vaccines so far, the alliance said in a report this week.

“No one should be blocked from getting a life-saving vaccine because of the country they live in or the amount of money in their pocket,” Oxfam health policy manager Anna Marriott said in a statement. “But unless something changes dramatically, billions of people around the world will not receive a safe and effective vaccine for COVID-19 for years to come.”

Wealthy countries, by hoarding the vast majority of the world’s vaccine supply, are “in breach of their human rights obligations,” said Steve Cockburn, Amnesty’s head of economic and social justice.

In September, the Canadian government announced a commitment of $440-million for the COVAX vaccine access facility, which seeks to provide equitable access to vaccines for people around the world, including in low-income and middle-income countries. “To eliminate this virus anywhere, we need to eliminate it everywhere,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at the time.

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Activists, however, have accused Canada and other wealthy countries of opposing a plan that would boost vaccine access by temporarily waiving some of the global intellectual property rules on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.

The proposal, led by South Africa and India, was discussed at a closed-door meeting of the World Trade Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, on Thursday. A decision is expected in the new year.

“The proposal would facilitate technology transfers so that COVID-19 medical products, including vaccines, could be produced quickly and affordably by manufacturers around the world,” Human Rights Watch said in a report on Thursday.

It urged governments to move swiftly to adopt the proposal, which has been supported by about 100 countries. It said the proposal was opposed by “a small group of high-income countries and their trading partners … including Brazil, the European Union, Canada, the United States, Japan and the United Kingdom.”

Youmy Han, press secretary for International Trade Minister Mary Ng, said the government has not rejected the proposal from India and South Africa. Instead it is asking the proponents to provide evidence of how the plan would address specific problems or gaps, she told The Globe and Mail in response to questions.

“Our goal is to gather more information and get more clarification on the proposed waiver,” she said.

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The need for the vaccines in Africa has become more urgent as COVID-19 cases begin to soar again in many African countries, including South Africa, which reported more than 8,000 new cases on Thursday – triple the number of daily cases in early December.

“Clearly the second wave is here, let there be no doubt,” Dr. Nkengasong said on Thursday.

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