Vaccine nationalism an issue of 'enlightened self-interest,' UN Secretary General warns

Developed countries hoarding COVID-19 vaccines is not only unfair and unjust, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres says, it is also “a matter of enlightened self-interest.”

Antonio Guterres calls on wealthy countries to share their vaccine stocks

UN chief criticizes countries for vaccine hoarding, export restrictions

3 years ago
Duration 10:04
In an exclusive interview with CBC News chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warns that the growing vaccine nationalism taking place by some countries puts the whole planet at risk and threatens to undermine the health of all people. Guterres also says an urgent, co-ordinated global vaccination plan is essential to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Watch Rosemary Barton Live on Sunday at 10 a.m. ET/7 a.m. PT/11:30 a.m. NT on CBC News Network and CBC Gem.

Developed countries hoarding COVID-19 vaccines is not only unfair and unjust, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres says, it is also "a matter of enlightened self-interest."

"I'm very concerned with this very unfair distribution of vaccines in the world," Guterres said in an interview on Rosemary Barton Live.

"It's in the interest of everybody to make sure that as soon as possible and in a fair way, everybody gets vaccinated everywhere and that vaccines are considered to be a truly global public good."

Guterres criticized wealthy countries for buying into vaccine nationalism, in which nations secure shots for their own populations, limiting supply elsewhere. 

"We have been appealing to developed countries to share some of the vaccines that they have bought. And in many situations, they have bought more than what they need," he said. 

The secretary general's comments come as the European Union took steps this week to tighten export controls on COVID-19 vaccines outside the 27-nation bloc. 

India, meanwhile, put a temporary hold on major exports of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine made by the Serum Institute of India — from which Canada is expecting to receive 1.5 million doses by the end of May — to meet domestic demand. 

Global vaccine sharing program affected

According to Reuters, India's move will affect supplies to the COVAX vaccine-sharing facility, an initiative that ensures low and middle-income countries have access to coronavirus vaccines 

Under COVAX, wealthier countries pool their funds to buy vaccines for other nations — as well as themselves. 

Boxes of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, manufactured by the Serum Institute of India and provided through the global COVAX initiative, arrive at the airport in Mogadishu, Somalia, Monday, March 15, 2021. (Farah Abdi Warsameh/The Associated Press)

Canada is set to receive 1.9 million doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine through the program by the end of June. The country has drawn criticism for that decision because it's already signed deals with vaccine makers for millions of shots of its own. 

"We are having difficulties with COVAX in relation to the supply of vaccines because there has been a lot of hoarding of vaccines, there are limitations to exports," Guterres said. "We are in a very difficult situation with COVAX itself, [which] is also not yet fully funded."

The secretary general acknowledged Canada has the right to receive its share of vaccines from the initiative, but said the key problem is ensuring that developing countries also have their quotas respected. 

Vaccine passports could be 'devastating'

On Monday, Guterres is set to virtually convene with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness to discuss the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

While he is focused on global economic recovery from the crisis, the secretary general said he is wary of introducing vaccine passports as a way to re-open international borders.

"It's a very controversial question," Guterres said, adding that nations must seriously discuss the international cooperation required to roll out such a strategy in an equitable way. 

Passengers wait to check in their luggage at Montreal–Trudeau International Airport in Montreal on Dec. 19, 2020. Showing proof of immunization against COVID-19 is being touted as one way to reopen cross-border travel. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

The World Health Organization says national authorities should not require proof of immunization for travel because it's still unclear how well vaccines minimize transmission of the virus. 

Trudeau himself has expressed reluctance to introducing such measures because vaccine passports invoke questions of equity, fairness and justice. 

"The worst is for some countries to have it, for other countries not to have it," Guterres said. "Especially it would be devastating if this would mean that people could move within the developed world, but not within the developing world."

Crisis could last for years without global plan

Guterres said that as more transmissible variants of the virus take hold, nations around the world must ensure everyone is protected.

"It is not the best strategy to vaccinate everybody in one country before those most vulnerable … are not vaccinated in the global south," the secretary general said. "It then becomes a danger even for the populations that have been vaccinated."

To achieve that goal, Guterres said a global inoculation strategy is needed.

"We need a mechanism, an empowered mechanism by the G20, to have a global vaccination plan," he said.

"It's very clear that there is a growing consciousness of that need. If we leave...the world without enough vaccines, if we have several new variants coming...and vaccines become not so effective, then I believe we might have a problem for the next few years that would be extremely, extremely difficult to manage." 

You can watch full episodes of Rosemary Barton Live on CBC Gem, the CBC's streaming service.

With files from Reuters

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