Canada is doubling its direct cash commitment to help buy COVID-19 vaccines for the global sharing program known as COVAX but isn’t sending any actual doses this month despite a desperate plea from officials for help.
International Development Minister Karina Gould told a virtual COVAX summit hosted by Japan Wednesday that Canada will donate another $220 million to help COVAX buy more vaccines to deliver to the 92 low and middle-income countries that rely on the facility to vaccinate their citizens.
That is on top of $220 million committed last September to buy doses for lower income nations through the COVAX Advance Market Commitment, $75 million to help get those doses delivered, and $30 million reallocated to COVAX from a separate vaccine program for pneumococcal disease.
“These vaccines are our best exit strategy from this pandemic,” Gould said in a speech at the summit.
“But the world also needs access to them. Borders shouldn’t be barriers to the best and latest science.”
But borders have been a barrier, with wealthy countries snapping up more than 80 per cent of the almost two billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines now administered around the world.
Canada, which started off slowly, has vaccinated more than 22 million people, with two-thirds of eligible people over the age of 12 now receiving at least one dose.
That puts Canada in the top 10 countries for people at least partly vaccinated. When second doses are also factored in, Canada has given out 64 doses for every 100 people in the country, putting in the top 20 countries in the world for doses per capita.
More than two dozen countries, mostly in Africa, have given out fewer than one dose per 100 people. COVAX has distributed 77 million doses so far, and aims to get two billion delivered by the end of the year.
But it said last week its first goal in June will fall 190 million doses short without immediate help from wealthy countries who are way ahead of the world on vaccinations. The results of that shortfall “could be catastrophic,” COVAX leaders said in a statement May 27.
India’s Serum Institute was to be one of the major suppliers of COVAX but because of the massive third wave in India this spring, the country has banned further export of doses for any reason until at least the end of the year.
“Countries with the largest supplies should redirect doses to COVAX now, to have maximum impact,” COVAX said.
COVAX was looking for another $2 billion in donations and the promise of actual doses. It got the money, but only a few additional promises of donations of vaccines.
To date there about 200 million doses on the table, half from the European Union, but it’s not clear when they’ll be distributed.
The United States intends to donate 80 million doses by the end of this month, but hasn’t said yet if they’ll go through COVAX or to other countries directly.
Canada has 28 million doses delivered so far and expects at least 100 million by the fall, far more than it needs to give two doses to all 38 million Canadians.
Gould was appointed in January as a co-chair of the COVAX engagement group trying to help create a mechanism to allow for doses to be donated and some of Canada’s funding has helped establish that. But she said Canada isn’t yet in a position to put actual doses on the table.
“We do not have excess vaccines currently coming to Canada,” she said.
“At this point in time we’re still very much focused on our domestic schedule but I can assure you that when we do have excess doses, we will be making that announcement.”
That is not good enough for the government’s critics.
“Canada’s position has been a gross disappointment,” said NDP health critic Don Davies. “It’s wrong from a moral and ethical point of view and its counter to our own public health needs.”
The more COVID-19 spreads, the higher the risk of new variants of concern which may evade the vaccinations we are giving out now. Experts have said vaccinating the world equitably, to help slow the spread globally, is the only way the pandemic will end.
Green party Leader Annamie Paul said COVAX has been very clear about what it needs and said Canada is creating a “false security” by only focusing on getting doses to Canadians at first.
COVAX is one of three arms of the ACT Accelerator, a global program to make sure the entire world has access to COVID-19 testing, treatments and vaccines.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced last month Canada would increase its overall support to the ACT Accelerator by $375 million to a total of more than $1.3 billion. Today’s $220 million donation to COVAX comes from that May pledge, which the international anti-poverty group Global Citizen said put Canada among a small group of countries donating an amount on par with the size of their economy.
—Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press