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Canada rejects WHO request for immediate vaccine donations to lower-income countries

Despite a plea from the World Health Organization for immediate help, the Canadian government says it is still too early to make any plan for redistributing the surplus vaccines that it has secured.

Canada has signed contracts with manufacturers to purchase up to 414 million doses of various COVID-19 vaccines – about five times more than it needs for its population.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in December that the surplus will be donated to the COVAX fund for lower-income countries, but he has not said whether his government will wait to vaccinate the entire Canadian population before making the donation. A federal spokesman said on Monday that the question is still “hypothetical.”

Mr. Trudeau spoke last week to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, and his office later said they discussed COVAX and the issue of “equitable and efficient access to vaccines.” But no details were released.

Last month, South African officials warned of “vaccine apartheid” and “chasms of inequity” in the private deals between wealthy countries and vaccine manufacturers.

Of the 28 million vaccine doses that have been administered worldwide in recent weeks, almost none have been given in Africa. Just one African country, Guinea, has managed to do any vaccinating so far, with about two dozen doses of a Russian vaccine. Africa will need about 1.5 billion doses to protect its population, Mr. Ramaphosa said on Monday.

Almost no vaccines administered in Africa

Apart from Guinea, which has administered 25 doses of the Russian vaccine to government officials, no other country in Africa has begun distributing any vaccines. 

Total number of COVID-19 vaccination doses administered*

The World Health Organization's Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyeus is asking higher income  countries to release their surplus vacccines on an urgent basis.

“I urge countries that have contracted more vaccines than they will need, and are controlling the global supply, to donate and release them to COVAX immediately,” Dr. Tedros told a media briefing in Geneva last Friday.

The COVAX program is now ready to distribute quickly any surplus vaccines that it receives from higher-income countries, he said.

Of the countries that have begun administering vaccines so far, the vast majority are high-income countries, he said.

“Vaccine nationalism hurts us all and is self-defeating,” Dr. Tedros said.

“Rich countries have bought up the majority of the supply of multiple vaccines. Now we’re also seeing both high and middle-income countries … making additional bilateral deals. This potentially bumps up the price for everyone else and means high-risk people in the poorest and most marginalized countries don’t get the vaccine.”

Guillaume Dumas, spokesperson for International Development Minister Karina Gould, said questions about Canada’s surplus doses are hypothetical. “We will be making these decisions once we have a better sense of which vaccines are approved and of what stage our vaccination efforts are at,” he told The Globe and Mail. “Vaccine rollouts still are in their early stages in Canada and abroad.”

Canada is still committed to “equitable vaccine distribution strategies both at home and globally,” he said. “We are the second-largest bilateral donor to COVAX.”

The government is facing little pressure from opposition MPs on the COVAX issue. “Do we have a surplus?” Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner asked in an interview with The Globe. “I would argue, right now, we don’t. At what point does the government think that we will have a surplus, is it two years from now or three years from now? That’s a piece of information the government should be transparent with.”

Jason Nickerson, humanitarian affairs adviser at Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders), said the vaccine surplus issue is not merely hypothetical for vulnerable health workers in low-income countries. “Surplus doses would be better in the arms of health care workers in another country that needs them, than sitting in Canadian freezers,” he told The Globe.

“We face a global reality that low-risk people in high-income countries appear poised to be vaccinated before high-risk people in low-income countries – in part because the available and limited supply of vaccines is being controlled by and directed toward countries such as Canada, who have signed bilateral purchase agreements to prioritize their populations, regardless of their risk, ahead of others.”

Anne-Catherine Bajard, manager of policy at Oxfam Canada, said Canada should fulfill its commitment to release vaccines to COVAX. “Canada has access to more than enough vaccines to cover its population’s needs several times over,” she told The Globe.

“The pandemic will not cease until the virus is controlled across the globe. To that end, rich countries like Canada should support access to vaccines globally. Only by rolling out vaccines across the globe will everyone by able to go back to a life that resembles some level of normalcy.”

With a report from Janice Dickson in Ottawa

Source: Globe and Mail

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