It’s ‘morally’ wrong for Canada to procure 1.9M vaccines from international program: Stephen Lewis

TORONTO — Canada should not be dipping into an international vaccine-sharing pool to secure doses that could otherwise go to developing countries that simply can’t afford them, according to one of the country’s most prominent advocates for global development.

COVAX is an entity that Canada and other countries fund to buy COVID-19 vaccines in bulk and deliver them to poorer nations that aren’t able to compete with wealthier nations to secure vaccine contracts from drug companies.

Canada invested $440 million into COVAX last September. Half of the money was meant to go toward securing up to 15 million doses for Canadians, while the other half was to purchase vaccines for 92 developing nations, including Afghanistan, Mali and Haiti.

The federal government announced earlier this week that Canada is set to receive a minimum of 1.9 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, pending regulatory approval, before the end of June through COVAX.

But Stephen Lewis, the former UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, says Canada is wrong to use the program for its own benefit, pointing out that Canada is the first G7 country to do so.

“It was always understood from the outset that this was not a source of vaccines for the rich and wealthy countries of the world,” Lewis told CTV’s Question Period in an interview with Evan Solomon airing on Sunday.

Lewis described the procurement as a “desperate effort” by the government to find millions of doses at a time when Canada has seen vaccine shipments dwindle and questions emerge about its vaccination timeline.

“For Canada to be proud of what it’s doing, I think, is a profound mistake,” he said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended the decision earlier this week, saying that Canada’s contribution to the program was “always intended” to allow the government to access additional doses for Canadians, while chipping in to provide shots to lower income countries.

“Canadians expect to get effective vaccines as quickly as possible and that’s why we cast our net extremely wide with both international contracts and domestic investments. And I know everyone is looking forward to getting those vaccines into their arms as quickly as possible,” Trudeau said.

Opposition parties have criticized the government over the decision, with the Greens suggesting that the move could tarnish Canada’s reputation on the world stage and Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole saying more could’ve been done to produce vaccines in Canada.

Lewis acknowledged that some Canadians may be relieved to get a vaccine regardless of the source, but he said the federal government never should’ve sought to use to program as part of its procurement strategy.

“I don’t think the international community believed for a moment that Canada would exercise that right because it’s such a violation of the needs of the developing world,” Lewis said.

Canada has already given at least first shots to more than 884,000 people, or roughly 2.3 per cent of the population, as of Friday. Lewis pointed out that that figure is higher than the vaccines for the entire continent of Africa, which has a population 37 times greater than Canada.

“It’s just wrong morally and practically,” Lewis said.

Despite a series of delays, the federal government insists that Canada remains on track to have enough vaccines to cover the entire population by the end of September. Lewis said he understands the anxiety around Canada’s procurement timeline, but he pointed out that Canada has the largest number of pre-purchased doses per capita in the world.

A separate issue, Lewis says, is how pharmaceutical companies have great power in deciding who gets the vaccines when supply is short.

“Why should the future of humankind be placed in the hands of the pharmaceutical industry, when most of the money that’s been paid to discover the vaccines came from governments and the public sector? I cannot understand that,” he said.

So far COVAX has secured nearly 2.3 billion doses for distribution this year, 1.8 billion of which will go toward developing countries. The first shipments will begin this month and go toward countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The United States did not join COVAX under former-U.S. President Donald Trump, but U.S. President Joe Biden has indicated that he intends to join the program. ​

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