Kareem Shaheen: We're taking from the foodbank to cover a late dinner

Canada's plan to dip into a COVID-19 supply intended for poorer nations is morally reprehensible.

By: Kareem Shaheen

If you have been following the cascade of fiascoes that is Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout, you may have heard on Wednesday that Ottawa will draw vaccines from something called COVAX to make up for the shortfall in doses that were supposed to be delivered by Pfizer and Moderna over the past couple of weeks.

This is like going to a food bank and taking back some of the food you recently donated to the plates of the poor because your UberEats delivery was late.

A bit of background. COVAX is a global alliance spearheaded by the World Health Organization whose job is to procure and distribute coronavirus vaccines to low-income countries. Its job in the long term is to vaccinate 20 per cent of the population of each one of its member countries.

Rich countries like Canada can afford to pre-order vaccines (as well as do costly things like shut down the economy and pay people to stay at home). Pre-ordering vaccines is important because it allows pharmaceutical companies to continue developing them. Rich countries contribute money to COVAX to help with the development, procurement and distribution of vaccines in the developing world, in exchange for access to the COVAX vaccine portfolio.

Canada is a member of COVAX and is actually its second-biggest contributor. It has pledged over $865 million for efforts to provide COVID-19 vaccines to low- and middle-income countries. So Canada certainly has a right to draw on the facility to make up for its vaccine shortage.

Still, the fact that something is permitted does not make it less morally reprehensible.

Canada bought enough vaccines from various manufacturers to vaccinate its entire population five times over, according to global vaccine pre-order data compiled by Duke University. As of January 23, 2.3 per cent of Canada’s population had received at least one dose of either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines. This amounts to a little over half a million people, and is an extremely low rate (Israel, the world leader, is at 60.1 per cent as of Feb. 4, the U.K. is at 15.5 per cent and the U.S. is at 10.1 per cent).

But we’re still doing a lot better than all of the lower-income countries that are supposed to be getting vaccines from COVAX.

As a matter of fact, low-income countries have received almost exactly 0 vaccines over the past month. The only low-income country (by World Bank standards) that appears to have received any vaccine is Guinea, which has vaccinated exactly 25 people so far, including its president.

Afghanistan? Haiti? Sudan? Syria? Yemen? Congo? Nothing.


Poor countries simply can’t afford to buy the vaccines. Around 7.7 billion doses of various vaccines have been purchased so far globally, and nearly 5.4 billion of them have been snapped up by higher-income and upper-middle-income countries like Canada, the U.S., European Union members, the U.K., and others. By comparison, low-income countries were able to scrounge just enough to buy 670,000 million doses. That’s where COVAX comes in. The alliance bought 1.1 billion vaccine doses to shore up the incredible need in poorer countries.

Even with COVAX, though, most vaccine distribution models predict that there will not be universal vaccination against COVID-19 until 2023 or 2024, compared with Canadian government promises that its entire population will be inoculated by this fall — a target that appears more likely will be achieved by next spring.

The problem isn’t just that poorer countries will simply have to wait a bit longer to vaccinate their own citizens. It’s that the delays will cost more lives proportionately compared to the West.

Consider Syria, which next month will enter its 10th year of civil war. The government has given up the pretext of properly testing or counting COVID-19 cases, and the virus is rampant in refugee camps in areas under rebel control. Early in the pandemic, the country’s president said it could simply not afford to shut down — people would have starved, living in a collapsing economy and with a collapsing currency under sanctions — and said it would only impose a partial curfew. Even those restrictions have been lifted for months.

In Iraq, which has over 600,000 cases and no vaccines, people have decided that they would simply carry on with their lives as if the virus didn’t exist, out of an erroneous belief that the population had developed herd immunity.

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Lebanon, where 300,000 people were rendered homeless by an enormous explosion in Beirut last August, and where the economy has collapsed and is undergoing hyperinflation, has 300,000 cases to a population of five million — a million of whom are refugees. It only managed to impose a frequently broken lockdown last week.

None of these countries has had a single vaccine dose. None of these embattled countries can afford Canada’s restrictions for any length of time, or afford to order the vaccines.

Many of them don’t even have the uninterrupted electricity supply needed to keep the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines cold enough to be usable.

And now, because Canada is panicking about EU export controls, its own botched rollout, and delays to its vaccine deliveries from Pfizer and Moderna, there’s going to be an even smaller piece of the vaccine pie for these countries that cannot afford to wait.

COVAX is supposed to begin rolling out its vaccine distribution in February, with 1.8 billion doses going to poorer countries this year. But even though it’s a chance for some modicum in fairness in vaccine distribution, it still has a 2021 funding shortfall of $27 billion.

And despite it all Canada, which has already pre-ordered more vaccines that it needs, wants to dip in. Just in case.

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