Canada Should Lead on Global COVID-19 Vaccine Equity
Ananya Tina Banerjee
School of Population and Global Health, McGill University
School of Population and Global Health, McGill University
Canada Research Chair in Epidemiology & Global Health
Canadians are lucky. Canada is among the leading wealthier nations having the highest vaccine coverage with more than 80% of the population over the age of 12 fully vaccinated. The same cannot be said for 3.5 billion people, largely in low-income and middle countries (LMICs), who are waiting for their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Only 2% of the population in LMICs had received both dose, and only 3% of the African population has been vaccinated. Though manufacturers are scaling up vaccine production, LMICs are still waiting for vaccines as COVAX donations trickle in, just as they have been so often in the past at the mercy of high-income nations. Without a high vaccination coverage, no country can deal with the delta variant.
Canada has prioritized their own political interest and tapped into the scarce supply of COVAX doses themselves, despite being among the high-income countries (HICs) that have secured most of the world’s available vaccines. Canada today is being called the world’s leading vaccine hoarding nation. Through bilateral deals with pharmaceutical companies, Canada has enough vaccines to inoculate its entire population several times over and offer COVID-19 booster shots. Political leaders have demonstrated hesitancy in sharing surplus vaccines quickly and pushing for manufacturing capacity with other countries. This was clear when India was undergoing a deadly surge in infections by withholding their AstraZeneca doses which Canada no longer administered. As of November 2021,Canada has only delivered about 5 million doses of the 200 million doses pledged to the COVAX Facility by the end of 2022.
Unhindered spread of the coronavirus is one of the main reasons for the development of the lethal and more transmissible delta variant — a situation that could have been controlled by global vaccine equity. Without widespread vaccination, millions of people will die, trillions will be lost in the economy, and the world simply cannot end this global crisis.
In October 2020, India and South Africa jointly proposed that World Trade Organization (WTO)-enforced intellectual property rights obligations related to patents, copyright, industrial designs, and clinical data should be suspended for the duration of the pandemic. This temporary initiative, called the TRIPS Waiver proposal, would help ensure a rapid, equitable and truly global public health response to COVID-19, which the current WTO intellectual property rights regime impedes. Despite the support from over 100 WTO member governments, including the United States, the debate continues at the WTO’s TRIPS Council. Canada claims it does not oppose the waiver, but it has not supported it either, which is hindering global vaccine equity and violates the right to life and health to which every human being is entitled, regardless of where they live in the world.
Canada still has time to be a leader to advance global vaccine equity. Here are ways for Canada to ensure for every person in this world to have a fair chance of receiving a vaccination.
- Join the United States in supporting President Biden’s plan to vaccinate 70% of the entire world’s population by September 2022.
- Support the World Health Organization’s call for a moratorium on COVID vaccine booster programs in order to prioritize vaccines for LMICs, given the limited vaccine supply. Currently, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) recommends a third dose for immunocompromised people, seniors, residents of long-term care facilities, and frontline healthcare workers, and that is a reasonable thing to do. But giving booster doses to the entire population is not supported by science, and will delay vaccine access to LMICs .
- Stop stockpiling vaccines and donate the surplus doses to countries that need them urgently for their healthcare workers and most vulnerable.
- Publicly support the temporary waiver to certain provisions of the Agreement on TRIPS that will enable the widespread manufacturing of COVID vaccines in all countries in all regions of the world by equally sharing formula, know-how, techniques, and ingredients.
- Amend the Canadian Access to Medicine Regime, and specifically Schedule 1 of the Patent Act Act, to include “COVID-19” vaccine”, thereby enabling Canadian manufacturers to apply for a compulsory license to produce and export vaccines.
- Ensure transparency in any future contracts with vaccine makers to avoid monopoly powers that compromise vaccine availability and access to LMICs.
The reality is “donating” vaccines, an approach pursued by Canada, is not a sustainable solution. The world needs to move away from the charity model to a more equitable, just model. Therefore, the TRIPS Covid-19 Waiver and technology transfer is the longer-term solution, as it will ensure that all countries have the right tools to fight the pandemic.
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