'Reprehensible, callous, and ethically odious': Canada receiving COVAX supply while other countries fall way behind

'Reprehensible, callous, and ethically odious': Canada receiving COVAX supply while other countries fall way behind

An international humanitarian group is calling on the Canadian government to commit to sharing its COVID-19 vaccine supply, at a time when other low- and middle-income countries are falling behind on inoculation.

The medical non-profit group Doctors Without Borders is asking Ottawa to stop accepting vaccine supply from COVAX, the global pool procurement mechanism for COVID-19 vaccines. It recently announced that it’s short at least 140 million doses, in part because of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis in India. The World Health Organization, UNICEF and other international agencies have called on G7 countries to donate excess vaccine supplies. While countries like the United States and France have announced plans to donate millions of doses, Canada has yet to make such an announcement. In the meantime, it's continuing to receive COVID-19 doses from COVAX, with 600,000 doses of AstraZeneca that arrived last week, and more expected by the end of June.

Dr. Jason Nickerson, humanitarian affairs advisor with Doctors Without Borders, tells Yahoo Canada News that the vast majority of COVID-19 doses have been administered in high- and medium-income countries, and less than 1 per cent in low income countries.

“Effectively the availability of COVID-19 doses have been monopolized by rich countries,” he says. “The COVAX facility is just struggling to get the access it needs to get to its target of 20 per cent of the world’s population.”

Canada and other countries' vaccine rollouts are already moving on to lower-risk populations, well ahead of lower income countries starting to vaccinate or fully vaccinate their high-risk populations.

Nickerson says that shows that countries need to be making firm commitments on how they intend to share doses, sooner rather than later.

“It’s not just an issue of sharing surplus doses once all low risk people in wealthy countries have been vaccinated,” he says. “It’s really a question of how countries can and when can countries start sharing doses immediately.”

Nickerson says the Canadian government has “hedged its bets” when it comes to the number of different vaccine manufacturers, vaccine platforms and suppliers it secured while negotiating some form of bilateral agreement in advance purchasing to be able to access those earlier than other countries would be able to.

“That has significant implications for public health ethics and global public health generally,” he says. “If we have large numbers of public health workers in low income countries that aren’t protected against COVID, that potentially places health systems and services at significant risk.”

Anne-Emanuelle Birn, a professor of critical development studies and global health at the University of Toronto, calls the situation "reprehensible, callous, and ethically odious."

"First of all, Canada should have refrained from receiving COVAX vaccines either altogether or at least until low- and middle-income countries had fully satisfied their vaccine needs," she says. "That Canada has been singled out for more than half a year as the country that has secured the most doses per capita - up to five times’ population need - and yet has continued to accept COVAX shipments, is beyond shameful."

She adds that many provinces have been sitting on a supply of Astra-Zeneca doses since last week, awaiting decisions regarding their distribution, while most of the world’s population –including people in India, Brazil, and elsewhere currently facing raging COVID-19 infections and deaths– have little or no access to vaccines.

"This situation is an outrage and should be widely condemned by the international community,"she says. "The Canadian government should do the right thing and equitably share its vaccine supply with the majority world."

Kathleen Marriner, spokesperson for Health Canada, said in an email response to Yahoo Canada News that Canada supports Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator and the COVAX Facility.

"Its pooled vaccine procurement mechanism offers a unique multilateral response to a complex global problem," she wrote. "In addition to providing funding to the COVAX Facility’s Advance Market Commitment to procure and deploy vaccines in lower-income countries, Canada contributed up to $5 million to help establish a mechanism to manage vaccines sharing between countries and enhance global equitable access to vaccines."

This mechanism is being set up by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, within the COVAX Facility.

Marriner adds that in December 2020, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed Canada’s commitment to share potential surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses with the world, should we receive more doses than necessary.

"No one wants to see vaccine doses go to waste," she wrote. "Canada will work closely with international partners, including other countries, Gavi, the COVAX Facility, and vaccine manufacturers, to explore all possible options to share our possible surplus and ensure doses get to people around the world who need them."