Sharing a COVID-19 vaccine with other nations is smart for public health and economy
Canada can play role in building solidarity around equitable global rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine
This column is an opinion by Dr. Peter A Singer, OC, a Canadian physician and special advisor to Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization. Before joining WHO, he co-founded the University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics and Grand Challenges Canada. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
After Jonas Salk successfully developed a vaccine for polio in 1955, an extraordinary thing occurred: the vaccine was shared widely, distributed fairly, and went on to improve countless lives. Canada's Connaught Medical Research Laboratories played an important role in helping to manufacture and test the vaccine.
The pandemic is spurring a similar need for global co-operation, and for Canada to step up and once again play a leading role.
Canada, alongside 75 other higher-income economies, has now joined an international initiative of 168 economies to support the equitable sharing of COVID-19 vaccines once they're developed. Canada recently committed $220 million to procure up to 15 million vaccine doses for Canadians, and another $220 million to purchase doses for low- and middle-income countries, in addition to earlier commitments.
This initiative, known as COVAX, is part of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator that aims to expedite the development and equitable distribution of diagnostics, drugs and vaccines against COVID-19, which has already killed more than one million people.
Progress is unfolding at an unprecedented pace. More than 200 potential vaccines are in development and more than 40 have entered human trials.
However, along with this momentum — and the need to maintain public health measures — come challenges.
Already, we've seen some rush to celebrate unproven breakthroughs or to short-circuit trials and other medically necessary regulatory steps. We must be wary of short-cuts. People around the world watch the news and wonder if the haste to identify a vaccine could obscure the overarching importance of safety and efficacy.
A vaccine rushed to market that proves ineffective — or worse, unsafe — could undermine public trust and set back our collective efforts not only for COVID-19 vaccines, but also for immunization against childhood killers like measles. This is an area where the WHO can play a valuable role, validating a vaccine only when it is deemed safe and effective.
But in addition to safety and efficacy, there is another looming challenge: people in Canada and in countries around the world are growing anxious about equitable access to an eventual COVID-19 vaccine.
We must approach this challenge in solidarity, with nations uniting around the pursuit of a successful and fair rollout of a vaccine – one guided by the inescapable truth that until we are all protected, none of us will be truly protected.
Wealthy nations, including Canada, have secured bilateral arrangements with vaccine manufacturers. Since no nation can predict which vaccine candidate will be most effective or contract access to all the candidates, COVAX offers a means to hedge national bets in favour of access when a vaccine is developed.
And it's a way to protect everyone's populations by working together. Sharing vaccines equitably isn't just charity; it's also smart from both a public health and economic standpoint. To save the most lives, and to restart an interconnected global economy, it's better to vaccinate some people in all countries rather than all people in some countries.
To this end, we must commit to work cooperatively and internationally — as was done in the days of Jonas Salk.
In May, the WHO brought together health ministers from around the globe, and they resolved unanimously to support, "universal, timely and equitable access to and fair distribution of all quality, safe, efficacious and affordable essential health technologies."
Now we must translate those principles into practice.
The ACT Accelerator currently has a $34 billion funding shortfall. To put that amount in perspective, that's less than 1 per cent of what G20 governments have already committed to domestic economic stimulus packages – in support of a project that could save many lives and get the world economy moving again.
Within the ACT Accelerator, COVAX — co-led by the Gavi vaccine alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and the WHO — aims to ensure access to at least 2 billion doses of a vaccine by the end of 2021. Its goal is also to make sure those doses are distributed equitably, giving priority to those who require them most urgently, such as front-line health workers and older people.
Canada's support for the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator and COVAX is generous and welcome. Just as important as the investment is the endorsement of international action and working in global solidarity to confront COVID-19.
Practically speaking, equitable allocation of vaccines will come down to political will.
Canada has long been a forceful advocate for multilateralism, international cooperation, the achievement of public health objectives, and for equity. As we face down COVID-19, these principles have never been more important.
With its pledge to COVAX, Canada has shown leadership alongside those working to save lives, stabilize health systems, support a truly global economic recovery and ensure equitable access to an eventual vaccine. In the months ahead, there is an opportunity to continue to rally other nations by loudly championing these principles – and by taking on those who might seek to undermine such a cooperative approach.
In the end, the true guarantor of equitable access to a vaccine depends upon broad and unqualified public support.
The Salk Vaccine was made available to all because that is what people and nations, including Canada, demanded. That same spirit is what we need now to deliver in the same way with respect to a COVID-19 vaccine.