Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said Saturday that Canada will donate millions more COVID-19 vaccine doses to a global vaccine-sharing initiative as rich countries scramble to send more shots to the developing world to help curb stubbornly high case counts.
Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Rome, Freeland said Canada is boosting its existing commitment to COVAX, a vaccine distribution program co-ordinated by the World Health Organization (WHO) and other groups, by some 73 million more shots to ensure COVID-19 vaccines are more readily available worldwide.
“We are standing up and doing our share — and that is absolutely the right thing to do,” Freeland said. “Canada’s commitment is very significant because of our size and given we don’t have domestic capacity.”
Saturday’s announcement is in addition to the 127 million doses previously promised by Canada to COVAX.
Of the 73 million committed on Saturday, Canada will immediately contribute 10 million doses of Moderna to the vaccine-sharing alliance — product previously allocated to Canada that will now be redistributed to other countries in need. Canada will then supply cash to COVAX so it can procure 63 million more doses by the end of 2022 — a total commitment of up to 200 million doses.
The timeline for when these 63 million doses would be purchased and delivered is unclear, but Freeland said Canada is committed to getting those shots into the arms of people who need them.
“This is a good-faith commitment; we are confident we can get them,” Freeland said when pressed for a delivery schedule.
Even with financial support from Western countries, COVAX has struggled to procure vaccines because so many of the factories producing the shots are fulfilling orders placed by rich countries that paid top dollar for their doses.
In the case of the Serum Institute of India, which produces a generic version of the AstraZeneca shot, the national government there has blocked exports to shore up local supply.
Dr. Zain Chagla is a professor of infectious diseases at McMaster University in Hamilton. He’s been following the global scramble to procure vaccines and its impact on developing countries.
“Obviously, more vaccines for the world is good, more vaccines back into COVAX is welcome. But the pressing global need is now — it’s not in 2022,” he said in an interview with CBC News.
“The reality is it’s 2021 and the next few months, with delta circulating, are going to be of much more consequence. There’s even more of a need for global doses today than there will be in a year.”
With Canada currently awash in shots, Chagla said the federal government should consider deferring any new deliveries, allowing companies to redistribute doses to other countries in need.
“There are going to be children five years old in Canada with both of their vaccines before health-care workers in some regions even have access to one. The inequity is showing up more and more,” he said, adding that leaving millions of people unvaccinated poses a risk for the world because a new vaccine-resistant variant could emerge.
The issue of vaccine equity is a top agenda item at this two-day gathering of the world’s largest economies.
The Italian summit, the first major in-person meeting since the pandemic began nearly two years ago, has also been convened to address climate issues and pandemic-fuelled economic troubles such as inflation and supply chain disruptions.
While wealthy countries have fared well in procuring effective, life-saving vaccines such as those offered by AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna, low- and middle-income countries have consistently struggled with access.
At the outset of the pandemic, COVAX was created to equitably distribute shots, but it has been hampered by supply constraints — rich countries have stockpiled vaccines — and delivery issues in countries on the African continent and elsewhere.
Vaccine gap ‘morally unacceptable’: Italian PM
Based on research compiled by former British prime minister Gordon Brown, who is leading a coalition of former world leaders advocating for the better distribution of shots, Canada, the United States, the European Union and Britain have a combined total of more than 240 million unused vaccines on hand.
At the same time, fewer than four per cent of people in low-income countries are fully vaccinated.
In a letter to Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi ahead of the G20 summit, Brown said this sort of lopsided vaccine access is “plaguing the planet.”
Draghi signalled on Saturday that he’s heard the calls for co-ordinated action out of the summit he’s hosting. An economist by training, the Italian leader said stalled vaccination rates are a human tragedy that leave the poorest more susceptible to a deadly disease, as well as being a drag on the economy.
“These differences are morally unacceptable and undermine the global recovery. We must do all we can to reach 70 per cent by mid-2022,” Draghi said at the opening ceremony, referring to a WHO goal to get everyone worldwide at least one shot by next year.
Freeland’s commitment isn’t the first time Canada has offered shots to those in need. Earlier this year, Canada promised 40 million doses to COVAX, including some of the product it agreed to buy from companies such as AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Novavax. The government has also earmarked more than $500 million in cash to help COVAX buy 87 million doses and improve its delivery process.
However, according to government data, fewer than three million of the shots Canada has donated have actually made it into the arms of people in the world’s poorest countries.