Canada snapping up COVID-19 vaccines at expense of poorer countries, experts say

Global health experts including Ronald Labonté of University of Ottawa are calling on wealthier nations such as Canada to stop hoarding COVID-19 vaccines and do more to help distribute them to the countries least equipped to fight the pandemic.

Global health experts decry vaccine 'hoarding,' call on richest countries to do more

COVID-19 patients lie on beds in a field hospital built inside a gym on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Andre Penner/Associated Press)

As the race for a COVID-19 vaccine intensifies, global health activists are pleading with wealthier countries such as Canada to do more to secure vaccines for nations that might not otherwise be able to afford them.

Canada signed an agreement last week to purchase 20 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine from AstroZeneca. There were already deals in place with Sanofi, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Novavax, Pfizer and Moderna.

All told, Canada has secured 282 million doses of the most promising vaccines. None has yet been approved for use in Canada.

The global vaccine market is "intense and unpredictable," said Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand last week. "When a vaccine is ready, Canada will be ready."

But the rise of so-called vaccine nationalism has some global health experts sounding the alarm. 

Ronald Labonté is former Canada research chair in globalization and health equity at the University of Ottawa. (University of Ottawa)

"Poorer countries don't have the same capacity," Ronald Labonté, former Canada research chair in globalization and health equity at the University of Ottawa, told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning. "It risks crowding out these other countries from being able to get some access in the short term to the vaccine supply." 

Labonté helped pen a recent op-ed in The Conversation titled "Canada's 'me first' COVID-19 vaccine strategy may come at the cost of global health." The op-ed outlines how a handful of rich countries have already snapped up more than half the world's expected vaccine supply.

We're arguing that Canada, at a minimum, should contribute dollar per dollar.- Richard Labonté

But the federal government insists Canada is doing its part. On Sept. 25, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced an investment of $440 million to COVAX, an international vaccine co-operative meant to provide equitable access to vaccines.

But Labonté said half of that contribution will go toward purchasing vaccines from COVAX for Canada's own use. 

Trudeau confirmed that when making the COVAX announcement on Friday. "Up to $220 million of this investment will go directly toward securing doses for Canadians," giving Canada "the option to purchase up to 15 million doses for Canadians."

"$220 million is what's left," said Labonté. "But there's a whole lot more that [Canada] and other countries could do to ensure access." 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Friday a $440-million contribution to COVAX, a global cooperative meant to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

COVAX has set as its initial goal a fundraising target of $2 billion. Even with Canada's contribution, it's only at the half-way mark, according to Labonté. Meanwhile, well-heeled nations are digging deep for their own citizens.

"Rich countries have the capacity to snap up almost all of the supply of vaccines as they become available," said Labonté.

Labonté said he understands that individual governments are motivated to protect their own citizens. "It's actually part of their mandate," he said. "It's understandable that Canada is doing what it's doing."

That was especially understandable once other "high-income countries, primarily our neighbour to the south" started a run on potential vaccines, Labonté said. The United States is not participating, nor helping to fund, the COVAX strategy.

"This pandemic can't be solved by any one country alone, because to eliminate the virus anywhere, we need to eliminate it everywhere," said Trudeau on Friday.

But Labonté said to do that, Canada and other richer nations will have to make sacrifices for the good of global health. "We're going to have to make some allocations. It's got to be deliberate," he said.

"We're arguing that Canada, at a minimum, should contribute dollar per dollar," said Labonté. "For every dollar [Canada] actually spends on procuring vaccines … for its own citizens, it gives an equivalent dollar … to [COVAX] to make sure that there's sufficient supply of vaccines as they become available for more equitable distribution.

"We're one of those privileged, wealthier countries," said Labonté. "We can continue to spend enormously in terms of providing for ourselves. But we can also then spend some of that … in providing for others."

With files from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning

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