Canada’s recent announcement that it would donate 17.7 million doses of vaccines to the global fight against COVID-19 is to be applauded. But don’t clap too loud. We weren’t ever going to use them anyway. For all of its rhetoric on global vaccine equity, the Canadian government could be doing far more to help combat the pandemic.
Positive but insufficient steps
The millions of vaccines being made available by Canada are all from AstraZeneca, which Canada no longer administers as first doses and only in exceptional cases as second doses. They are still highly effective vaccines and will be of tremendous use to the countries that receive them. Still, it will be noticed abroad that we are only giving away vaccines that would not going to wind up in Canadian arms anyway. How much credit do we expect for that? What else were we going to do with them, throw them out, like we are currently doing with the tens of thousands of AstraZeneca doses that sit in fridges until they expire?
The announcement also includes an initiative to match donations made by ordinary citizens to UNICEF Canada’s “Give a Vax” campaign. The latter is supporting vaccination efforts around the world. The government will double the contributions that Canadians make until September 6, up to a maximum of $10 million.
Again, this initiative will no doubt make a positive contribution. But the matching-funds mechanism is “a bad idea”. It is needlessly bureaucratic, hinders planning and slows the process down. Global Affairs Canada has already set aside $10 million for this purpose. Why wait until September 7 to determine how much it will contribute to the UNICEF campaign? If it is worthwhile, just give UNICEF the $10 million now. With the Delta variant spreading around the world, the funds are urgently needed – right away, not in two months’ time.
What more should Canada do?
First, the Canadian government should ramp up its in-kind donation of vaccines. Within a month, Canada will have more than enough vaccines to double-vaccinate its entire eligible population. So why aren’t we also donating the top-rated vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna?
It appears the government wants to stockpile them, just in case we need some more later for booster shots. With a fall election widely expected, the Trudeau government seems to be staking its re-election hopes at least in part on its handling of the vaccine rollout and is therefore understandably cautious. No doubt, the opposition parties, the provinces and the media (to their discredit) would raise a stink if we ever had to slow down domestic vaccination even slightly because of doses donated to countries that needed them more urgently.
The government has signed contracts for 10 doses per Canadian, by far the highest level of vaccine nationalism in the world. Canada and a small number of other wealthy countries have cleared the shelves of available vaccines, leaving COVAX – the multilateral initiative that promotes vaccine access and equity – not only short of money but also of doses to spend it on. In the words of one participant in the design of the COVAX mechanism, “Rich countries behaved worse than anyone’s worst nightmares”.
We currently only need two doses per Canadian, three if one counts a booster shot (which may not be required for quite some time). So what is preventing Canada from committing to donating the more than 200 million doses that we won’t need? Even if they are not currently in stock, the government could make a firm promise and set up a timetable for delivery.
Second, Canada should take additional steps to facilitate the manufacturing of COVID vaccines in countries in all regions of the world. Much more needs to be done to build the necessary infrastructure but also, equally important, to share formulas, know-how, techniques and ingredients.
Key for the expansion of the global supply of vaccines is flexibility on intellectual property rights, including patents. In health emergencies, such as the current one, Canadian and international law provide for a range of measures that would help put people’s lives ahead of profits. Yet Canada is hedging.
Even after President Joe Biden expressed the US government’s support for a temporary waiver on COVID vaccine patents, proposed by India and South Africa last year under the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, Canada is refusing to back the initiative. Despite the urgency of action, Canada keeps stalling.
Similarly, the WTO has endorsed the production of a generic version of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine by Biolyse, a Canadian company. In May, Bolivia placed an order for 15 million doses. Two months later, the Canadian government has yet to make a decision on whether or not to approve the deal under the Canadian Access to Medicines Regime.
The window is closing
At the rhetorical level, the Canadian government has emphasized the importance of equitable access to COVID vaccines around the world. It has also often repeated how the pandemic won’t be over until it is over everywhere. It has taken some important steps to fund vaccination abroad, which is the only realistic scenario for exiting the global pandemic. But Canada is dragging its feet and many of its efforts – including the latest announcements – are timid, late and vastly insufficient. Moreover, vaccine equity requires more than the occasional charitable donation.
Canada’s international reputation has suffered because of its record-breaking vaccine stockpiling. If the government wants to boost its international image, there are significant concrete measures it could take almost overnight, including some at little or no monetary cost. But the Canadian government needs to hurry. The window of opportunity is closing. Otherwise, in the coming years, when the story of COVID vaccines is told, Canada may find itself stuck in the villain’s role.