Last week I took my 2-month-old baby girl to get her first vaccines for polio, diphtheria, and other diseases. It gives you a whole other appreciation for something that, to us as Canadians, is easily accessible, free, and provides effective immunity against infectious diseases.
COVID-19 has taken appreciation for vaccines into the national mainstream as Canadians hope they will help restore the best parts of our pre-pandemic lives, economy, and society as soon as possible.
But — believe it or not — vaccinating Canada’s entire population should not be our immediate goal. It’s a global pandemic, so our health and economic security at home is directly intertwined with the spread of the virus around the world, including through low and middle income countries.
On Aug. 31, the Government of Canada announced agreements with Novavax and Johnson & Johnson, in addition to those previously struck with Moderna and Pfizer. In total, these agreements will provide Canada with at least 88 million doses — and at most 190 million doses — of eventual COVID-19 vaccines.
We also learned Canada is in “final stages” negotiations with AstraZeneca to secure doses of the most clinically advanced vaccine candidate under development at Oxford.
What wasn’t talked about that day was that Canada has also expressed interest in joining the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) Facility, the only global co-operative solution for COVID-19 vaccine procurement led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI); Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; and the World Health Organization.
Higher income countries pay in to access a portfolio of at least nine of the top vaccine candidates, share the risk, and pool their buying power to reduce the price per dose as much as possible. They are also encouraged to pledge funding towards an Advance Market Commitment (AMC) to ensure equitable vaccine access for lower income countries.
The immediate goal is to deliver 2 billion doses by the end of 2021 so that participating countries can vaccinate 20% of their populations — those most in need, including health workers, older adults, and people with other health conditions.
Doing so would bring the pandemic under much better control and buy time to achieve the longer term goal of manufacturing and delivering vaccines to everyone, everywhere, who needs them.
In a perfect world, this would be the only way to get COVID-19 vaccines. Prices would be lowest, access and cooperation would be maximized, and we would end the pandemic in the fastest possible time.
In reality, rich countries like Canada, the US, the UK, Japan, and others like the European Union are spending billions to guarantee front-of-the-line access for their entire populations despite the WHO's warnings that "vaccine nationalism" will squeeze supply.
Already over 2 billion doses have been pre-ordered by this limited group, often at two, three, four, or even five times the size of their populations.
Some may say that’s what governments ought to do: take care of their people and let the rest fend for themselves.
But in a global pandemic — with hundreds of thousands dying and the global economy that Canada benefits from bleeding trillions — taking a global co-operative approach is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do for Canadian interests.
After all, many vaccine candidates fail, while others may only provide limited or temporary immunity. No country can guarantee its citizens that it has bet on the right horses in this race — so why even make it a race at all?
Canadian leaders have consistently taken the right stance in support of a global equitable approach. On May 4, during the first Coronavirus Global Response Summit, Prime Minister Trudeau told world leaders: “We know that the safety of our own citizens depends on how we keep people around the world safe.”
On June 27, during Global Goal: Unite For Our Future, convened by Global Citizen and the European Commission, Trudeau told a global audience: “We’re also committed to working with countries around the world on how we can pool procurement efforts to make sure all countries have access to the vaccine...My friends, it’s time to unite for our future.”
On July 15, he co-authored a Washington Post op-ed entitled, “The international community must guarantee equal global access to a COVID-19 vaccine.”
If equal, global access really means equal, global access only after ourselves, then we’re signing up for an approach that will extend the pandemic and its impacts — including global economic instability, rising poverty, and food insecurity.
Canada can do both the right thing and the smart thing by officially joining the COVAX Facility; by demonstrating leadership as a G7 country through a full-throated public endorsement of COVAX to the international community; by robustly informing Canadians about COVAX as much as about our deals with pharma companies; and by committing more to support lower income country access.
So far, Canada’s only contribution has been to allow funds pledged previously to Gavi by the Harper government to be repurposed. A few hours before Canada’s vaccine announcement on Monday, the European Union announced it will give €400 million in guarantees to COVAX towards the goal of equal, global vaccine access for low and middle-income countries.
Canada has a legacy of being at the front of the line when it comes to bringing countries together towards shared solutions. And if my baby girl is to grow up in a world free of COVID-19, it won’t be because we go it alone.
You can take action here to ask Justin Trudeau and Canada's Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland to invest at least 1% of Canada's pandemic response funds to help lower income countries fight COVID-19. You can find out more about COVID-19 and its impact on the world's most vulnerable people, through our coverage here.