Canada is doubling its direct cash commitment to help buy COVID-19 vaccines for the global sharing program known as COVAX — but it 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 on 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’s 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.
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WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reiterated long-running concerns that Western nations have vaccinated high percentages of their people, while health workers in places like Africa remain unprotected.
“Of the 1.8 billion vaccines administered globally, just 0.4 per cent have been administered in low-income countries,” he said. “This is ethically, epidemiologically and economically unacceptable.”
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Canada, which started off slowly, has vaccinated more than 22 million people, with two-thirds of eligible people over the age of 12 now having received 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 it 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 target 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 COVAX’s major suppliers. But because of the massive third wave in India this spring, the country has banned further exports 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.
No doses to spare yet: Gould
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.
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 create a mechanism to allow for doses to be donated; some of Canada’s funding has helped to establish that. But Gould 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.”
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The government’s critics expressed their displeasure with that explanation.
“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 it’s counter to our own public health needs.”
The more COVID-19 spreads, the higher the risk posed by new variants of concern — which may evade the vaccinations we are giving out now. Experts have said vaccinating the world equitably is the only way to end the pandemic.
een Party Leader Annamie Paul said COVAX has been very clear about what it needs and Canada is creating a sense of “false security” by focusing only 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.
Canada was among dozens of countries that pledged nearly $2.4 billion US to the COVAX vaccine-sharing plan.
Those pledges ranged from $2,500 from island nation Mauritius to millions of dollars and doses from larger, wealthier countries such as Australia, Sweden, Austria and Switzerland.
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Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan, which was the official host of the summit, pledged $800 million US, while Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez pledged 15 million doses and $61 million US.
“Only by leading by example we will be effective in preaching solidarity,” Sanchez said.
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U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris cited the United States’s $2 billion contribution this year and $2 billion earmarked for next year, but made no specific announcements on fresh U.S. funding.
The United States intends to donate 80 million doses by the end of this month, but hasn’t said yet if it will go through COVAX or to other countries directly.
COVAX has praised contributions from corporate and philanthropic organizations. Today it welcomed new commitments from the foundations of Visa and Mastercard, as well as from cloud computing company Twilio.