The Current

Canada should donate AstraZeneca vaccines, or we'll 'have blood on our hands:' doctor

With many parts of the world struggling to get access to COVID-19 vaccines, some health experts say Canada should send its halted AstraZeneca shots to other nations that need them.

Federal gov’t says no shots to spare, as less than 4% of Canadians fully vaccinated

A health-care worker in Rome holds up a dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Some people are calling for Canada to donate extra doses of the vaccine to other countries in need, after several provinces paused administration of the shot. (Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse/The Associated Press)

Read Story Transcript

With many parts of the world struggling to get access to COVID-19 vaccines, some health experts say Canada should send its halted AstraZeneca shots to other nations that need them.

"This is a global pandemic," Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician at St. Joseph's Healthcare in Hamilton, Ont., told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"If we're not going to take care of our global partners, something's going to happen, variants are going to emerge, and we're going to have blood on our hands with people that died."

Last week, several provinces halted administration of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine as a first dose because of supply issues and safety concerns around rare but serious blood clots.

Those decisions came after the National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommended that Canadians who are less likely to contract COVID-19 consider waiting for "preferred" mRNA vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna, because they don't carry the same clotting risks.

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A health-care worker wearing personal protective equipment tests a person for COVID-19 in New Delhi. The country has been hard-hit by COVID-19, and experts say Canada should consider sending its AstraZeneca shots there. (Prakash Singh/AFP via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, the federal government announced on Wednesday that Canada would receive another 655,000 doses of AstraZeneca through the global vaccine-sharing alliance COVAX, which was designed primarily to help low- and middle-income countries get vaccines.

Many of those AstraZeneca shots are now sitting in storage as provincial leaders await expert guidance on whether the vaccines should be used for Canadians' second doses or not. 

Chagla said that while Canada is fortunate to be able to choose from a variety of vaccines, that's not an option in many places around the world. As of Monday, several countries were still awaiting their first shipments of COVID-19 vaccines, the BBC reported.

A man sitting down.
Dr. Zain Chagla is an infectious disease specialist in Hamilton, Ont. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Rather than letting Canada's AstraZeneca vaccines sit in limbo or go to waste, Chagla said, they should be offered to countries like India, which has struggled to contain the health crisis.

"A single dose of AstraZeneca as compared to zero doses of vaccine is incredibly powerful," said Chagla. And the risk of contracting COVID-19 in countries where vaccination rates are low outweighs the risk of "rare clotting reactions," he added.

Is it ethical to give away unwanted vaccines?

Sharing vaccines doesn't just help other countries though; it's good for Canada too, said Maxwell Smith, a bioethicist at Western University who serves on Ontario's COVID-19 Bioethics Table and Vaccine Distribution Task Force.

"If we continue to see this virus impact these countries and new variants emerging, this really affects the health of Canadians," said Smith. "So our health is dependent on getting those vaccines done in other parts of the world."

Maxwell Smith is a bioethicist at Western University in Ontario. (Maxwell Smith)

As for whether it's ethical to donate vaccines to developing nations when those vaccines are perceived to carry some risk, Smith's answer is unequivocal.

"If we think that would be wrong because it's inequitable, because we won't be using this vaccine, and so it might be seen as inferior, and so that's a reason why we don't give countries that desperately need vaccinations the vaccine, that seems to be wrong to me," he said. 

"These are countries that desperately need vaccines."

WATCH | World needs sustainable model for low- and middle-income countries to produce vaccines

Rich countries hoarding vaccines has to end, expert says

3 years ago
Duration 14:01
The world needs a sustainable model for low- and middle-income countries to produce vaccines, says Dr. Gavin Yamey of Duke University's Center for Policy Impact in Global Health. And it's in the economic interests of rich countries to help make it happen, he says.

Lily Caprani agrees. The vaccine advocacy expert at UNICEF global headquarters said it's not enough to successfully vaccinate some countries and not others.

"The only real pathway out of a global pandemic is to make sure that you vaccinate all of the vulnerable groups and health-care workers in every country," she said.

A data analysis commissioned by UNICEF shows Canada and its G7 partner countries, plus other EU nations, collectively have an excess of 153 million vaccine doses that they could donate to countries in need over the summer, Caprani said.

Lily Caprani is a vaccine advocacy expert with UNICEF. She says the way out of the COVID-19 crisis is to ensure vaccines are available in all countries. (Submitted by Lily Caprani)

Over the weekend, Public Services Minister Anita Anand, who is responsible for vaccine procurement, told Global News that Canada is committed to donating excess vaccines. However, the government also said Canada doesn't have any vaccines to spare at the moment.

In a statement to The Current, Minister of International Development Karina Gould's office said less than four per cent of Canadians have been fully vaccinated with two doses, and that COVID-19 outbreaks are still raging.

Chagla said Canada needs to come up with a plan for whether it's going to let citizens get a second dose of AstraZeneca, or whether it's going to give them away. To let the vaccines potentially expire in storage would be "tragic," he said.

"I don't know how we could live with ourselves," Chagla told Galloway. "From a global equity standpoint, it's an incredible injustice if we leave doses for our population to spoil as compared to putting doses into global partners."

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Julie Crysler.

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