OTTAWA — More than 100 Canadian health and policy experts say the federal government has succumbed to "vaccine nationalism" because it has pre-purchased tens of millions of vaccine doses from private companies.
They are also critical of the government for not yet giving financial support to an international fund to help poor countries receive an eventual COVID-19 vaccine — a fund known as the COVAX Facility, which aims to equitably distribute two billion doses by the end of next year.
International Development Minister Karina Gould told The Canadian Press the government is committed to making COVAX a success but did not disclose any future spending plans. She said Canada is working behind the scenes to ensure that the new global health architecture taking shape during the pandemic leads to "a fair, equitable, accessible and affordable vaccine" for Canada and the world.
The COVAX Facility is vaccine-sharing alliance of more than 150 countries that is linked to the World Health Organization. It is trying to avert a scramble by individual countries to secure vaccines for their own populations, often by pre-buying doses directly from pharmaceutical companies.
The Canadian Coalition for Global Health Research (CCGHR) and Canadian Society for International Health, the lead groups in a letter released Friday, said Canada is doing just that because it has made deals to buy tens of millions of vaccine doses from at least four international biotech companies.
The letter, signed by a range of health professionals, academics, policy advocates and individuals, is critical of the government for its private advance-purchase agreements, saying they undermine the effort to distribute an eventual vaccine fairly.
"The success of this plan is now under threat due to the behaviour of many wealthier nations, including Canada, who are currently manoeuvring to secure vaccines for their own citizens — a phenomenon known as 'vaccine nationalism,' " it says.
"Deals are being struck with frontrunning manufacturers ahead of the evidence and in a climate of financial secrecy to buy up supplies of a limited, lifesaving resource. Led by the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union, wealthy countries are reported to have already pre-ordered more than two billion doses, essentially crippling vaccine supply for other countries until late 2021."
But Gould said ensuring domestic vaccine access and funding new tools like COVAX are not mutually exclusive.
"We're going to be very much engaged in that (COVAX), very much active in leading that it is a success and at the same time making sure that we also have what Canadians need," said Gould.
"So, I hear them. I appreciate it. We all want to see a solution, and we all want to make sure that this happens."
A spokesman for Gould said has said previously that Canada is planning a contribution to COVAX by the program's Sept. 18 deadline.
Dr. Katrina Plamondon, the head of CCGHR's university advisory council of global health leaders, spearheaded the open letter. She said in an interview she has "compassion and empathy" for Canadian political leaders being expected to secure a vaccine for Canadians and trying to help ensure poorer regions are also served.
"People are pushing so hard and so there's a lot of local pressure," said Plamondon, of the University of British Columbia's School of Nursing. "When one country starts behaving with this vaccine nationalism, there's pressure."
The letter notes that Canada is committed to joining COVAX and has already pledged $120 million to the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, which is linked to COVAX.
COVAX would also give participating countries access to vaccines that would cover 20 per cent of their own populations.
Earlier this year, Canada also renewed its commitment to GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, by pledging $600 million to the leading international organization for distributing vaccines for multiple illnesses to less-developed countries.
Plamondon said COVAX has raised less than half of its $2-billion goal, which makes it important that Canada make a spending commitment that might inspire other countries.
"I'd be so proud to see that happen. I would say, this is a government who is walking its talk, is trying to bring awareness to the importance to equity and human rights in the response to this globally," she said.
"I want to be able to celebrate this."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 11, 2020.