Canada: Is ‘me first’ COVID vaccine policy hurting other nations?

Richer nations including Canada need to do more to ensure COVID-19 vaccines are equitably distributed, experts say.

The first Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines were administered this week to health workers and residents of long-term care homes in Canada [Carlos Osorio/Reuters]

Toronto, Canada – Front-line healthcare workers and residents of long-term care homes received the first COVID-19 vaccines in Canada this week, marking what officials said is the beginning of the end of the pandemic that brought the world to a halt.

But as people in some parts of the world breathe a sigh of relief, others will not be able to join in the collective jubilation for months – if not years – to come.

That is because countries, including Canada, have “hoarded” the majority of the vaccines, said Stephen Cockburn, head of economic and social justice at Amnesty International.

A recent report by the rights group stated that all of Moderna Inc’s COVID-19 vaccines and 96 percent of Pfizer-BioNtech’s vaccine doses have been secured by rich countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is currently being administered in Canada, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Moderna’s vaccine would be used in more remote locations in the country once it secures the necessary regulatory approvals.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talks to a patient after they received one of the first COVID-19 vaccines at the Civic Hospital in Ottawa on December 15 [Blair Gable/Reuters]

“Canada is a country that’s ordered the most vaccines per person in the world,” Cockburn told Al Jazeera. “If all the vaccines that they’ve ordered are proven to be safe and effective, it would mean enough vaccines to immunise the population five times over.”

With pharmaceutical companies having a finite capacity to produce vaccines, richer countries earmarking so many in advance can create a “global shortage of supply”, said Cockburn.

By extension, that could complicate international efforts to ensure the equal distribution of shots, such as COVAX, a global initiative launched by the World Health Organization in April to ensure safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines are distributed evenly between nations.

“Many countries have seen the vaccine, understandably so, as their way out of this crisis and it’s been a race,” Cockburn said. “Rather than work together, we’ve had a ‘me first’ attitude in many countries and there’s been a lack of multilateralism and global coordination in the world.”

Unequal distribution

Unequitable vaccine and drug distribution has been an issue for many years.

Dr Katrina Perehudoff, a post-doctoral researcher at the Universities of Amsterdam and Ghent and fellow at the WHO Collaborating Centre in Health Promotion at the University of Toronto, said that is because drug development is driven by the market.

“In the last two decades, we’ve seen a decline in the number of vaccine developers and producers globally, and that further concentrates and privatises vaccine development and manufacturing capacity around the world,” she told Al Jazeera.

While Canada's top priority is ensuring that Canadians are vaccinated, we take very seriously our responsibility as global citizens to ensure that there is a global response and that enables fair, equitable access for people around the world

by Karina Gould, Canadian minister of international development

The system sets up richer countries to receive the first vaccines faster because they have the money to stand at the front of the line and buy vaccines from the private companies that created them.

In other words, a profit-driven model of drug development will see scarce supplies go to the highest bidder, even though pandemic recovery hinges on international cooperation and the equitable global distribution of vaccines.

Perehudoff said, however, that in the current circumstances, it is understandable that countries would be trying to get themselves out of the crisis first.

“When we look at the Canadian government securing access to a potentially life-saving medicine like the COVID vaccine to protect people from a pandemic, particularly its own residents, we can call that both medically responsible and consistent with some of its human rights obligations,” she said.

“But at the same time, securing a big piece of the world’s limited vaccine supply inevitably leaves less room for others. And that decision also has important human rights and ethical implications for countries like Canada to assist lower-resourced nations to access these medicines.”

‘We don’t have a closet full’

Karina Gould, Canada’s minister of international development, said allegations the country is hoarding vaccines are unfounded. “We’re talking about hypothetical vaccines, we don’t have a closet full of actual doses of vaccines right now,” Gould told Al Jazeera in an interview.

“These are advance purchase agreements that Canada and other countries have entered into with vaccine candidates that could be successful, but they aren’t as of yet.”

Canada, home to just more than 38 million people, expects to receive 168,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine and as many as 249,000 Pfizer-BioNTech doses before the end of the year, Trudeau recently told reporters.

The country has reported more than 481,000 cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began and over 13,000 deaths linked to the novel coronavirus.

Rather than work together, we've had a 'me first' attitude in many countries and there's been a lack of multilateralism and global coordination in the world

by Stephen Cockburn, Amnesty International

Gould said Canada has been among the top donors to international initiatives such as COVAX and the ACT Accelerator, a WHO-led effort that brings together world leaders, philanthropists and others to accelerate the development of COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines.

“The idea is that if you’re a self-financing country or a lower-income country, that within the first year that the vaccine is available, you will receive enough doses for 20 percent of your population,” she said.

Canada has donated $220m to COVAX Advance Market Commitment, a global financial mechanism to support developing countries securing vaccine funding, Gould said, among other programmes that aim to ensure distribution as soon as possible.

“While Canada’s top priority is ensuring that Canadians are vaccinated, we take very seriously our responsibility as global citizens to ensure that there is a global response and that enables fair, equitable access for people around the world,” she added.

But Cockburn at Amnesty International insisted that leaders need to see the battle against COVID-19 as a collective one. “I understand that governments are under pressure by their populations, as well to make sure that they get vaccines,” he said.

“We would argue that that is unfair and also short-sighted … If you only vaccinate a portion of the world, you still can’t really open up global trade or global travel and you risk the virus coming back.”

Source: Al Jazeera