Cross Country Checkup

As India sees record COVID-19 cases, experts say Canada should do more to expand global vaccine access

Only way out of pandemic is stronger global collaboration on vaccines, says doctor

Posted: May 02, 2021
Last Updated: May 03, 2021

A man waits outside a factory to get his oxygen cylinder refilled in New Delhi. The deadly surge of COVID-19 cases in India is leading to shortages of oxygen across the country. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

As India continues to break COVID-19 records, Dr. Prabhat Jha said Canada could have done more to strengthen the global distribution of vaccines.

"That would have been a commitment for more funding to COVAX," Jha, an epidemiologist and professor at the Centre for Global Health at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health, told Cross Country Checkup. COVAX is a global vaccine-sharing initiative jointly co-ordinated by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance.

"It certainly could have done more by calling for the G20 to make sure that vaccines were very equitably distributed," Jha said.

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"And it certainly could have put more emphasis on identifying that the scale of capacity for manufacturing, which belatedly Canada is trying to do, would have not just a focus on supplying vaccines for Canada but for the world."

India is currently facing a devastating outbreak of COVID-19, with 392,488 new daily cases reported on Sunday. The reported number of deaths attributed to the coronavirus jumped by a record-breaking 3,689 on Sunday.

The surge has overwhelmed hospitals and led to shortages of key medical supplies, including oxygen.

WATCH | India hits new COVID-19 case record:

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India recorded more than 400,000 new COVID-19 cases for the first time as the country battles a deadly second wave of outbreaks.  2:37

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Several countries have committed to support India — including Canada, which pledged $10 million in aid. A spokesperson for International Development Minister Karina Gould said the government will share vaccine doses "when in a position to do so."

"This funding will help meet some of the most urgent medical needs like purchasing and distributing essential supplies, as well as supporting vital blood and ambulance services," Gould said in an April 27 statement.

A patient is treated for COVID-19 inside the casualty ward at a hospital in New Delhi. Hospitals across India have been devastated by the latest wave of cases. (Danish Siddiqui/Reuters)

In March, Procurement Minister Anita Anand told CBC News Network's Power & Politics that the federal government would not give doses to other countries until all Canadians are vaccinated.

Jha said that the current approach to vaccine distribution, which has seen countries vie for their own share of doses, is no longer working. He said stronger global collaboration on vaccines is the only way out of repeated COVID-19 waves in the future — as well as the pandemic itself.

"We know that the world can't go back to business as usual unless basically almost all of the adults in the world are vaccinated."

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WATCH | No vaccines ahead of India's mass vaccination drive:

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Health ministers in several Indian states say they've done all the necessary preparations to start the federal government's campaign to vaccinate everyone above the age of 18, but have no vaccines to work with.  0:29

Jha cautioned that nearby countries could also soon see a surge in cases.

"Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal are all at risk. Afghanistan also. The same kind of surge might well take place there," he said.

Canada falling short on obligations, expert says

According to researcher Katrina Perehudoff, vaccines have been treated more like a commodity rather than a public good.

Perehudoff, a fellow at the WHO Collaborating Centre on the Pharmaceutical Sector at the University of Toronto, said Canada has a responsibility under international human rights law to co-operate with other countries during a public health crisis.

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"Canada is part of the 171 countries that have committed to international human rights law that clearly outlines everybody has a right to health ... not only [for] the people within your country, but also internationally," she said.

A man walks past medical supplies destined for India at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, near Paris. Several countries have pledged aid for India as it faces the latest COVID-19 crisis. (Lewis Joly/Pool/Reuters)

While Perehudoff said it's understandable that Canada would prioritize vaccines for its own citizens, that doesn't absolve the government from its global responsibilities.

The goal of COVAX is to provide equitable global access to vaccines, but Perehudoff said vaccine donations often arrive in low- and middle-income countries later — and in smaller quantities — than in their richer counterparts.

Global Affairs Canada said Canada has contributed $940 million to global diagnostics, therapeutics.

"Our government was one of the first to invest into a global mechanism like COVAX and to show real solidarity with the rest of the world," said a spokesperson in a statement to Checkup.

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WATCH | Fauci says vaccine sharing must be equitable:

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April 30, 2021 - U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci discusses Canada's third wave, vaccine sharing and the Canada-U.S. border. Plus, Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones talks about why the federal government should have tougher restrictions at land border crossings.  91:09

Canada has also ordered vaccines through the program. It's the only G7 country to have done so thus far; New Zealand and Singapore have also ordered vaccines through COVAX.

However, India has recently stopped exports on vaccines, leading to a 90-million-dose shortfall for COVAX, according to the Washington Post. The export ban will likely delay Canada's deliveries from COVAX as well, a federal official said earlier this month.

"The donation mechanism is basically relying on benevolence and charity rather than these international human rights obligations that countries do have," Perehudoff said.


Written by Jason Vermes with files from CBC News, Reuters, Menna Elnaka and Steve Howard.

Clarifications

  • The headline on this story has been updated for clarity.
    May 03, 2021 11:38 AM ET