To end the pandemic, Canada must stop standing in the way of global vaccine equity

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has not tired of saying it throughout the pandemic: “No one is safe until everyone is safe.” But Canada’s global vaccine diplomacy has made the world less safe, not more.

The emergence of the new COVID-19 variant, Omicron, has been met in Canada with travel bans on several African countries and a growing clamour for giving all adults booster shots. But punishing the rest of the world won’t help end the pandemic; it only serves to perpetuate it.

Experts have been telling us for months that we cannot sit back and let large swathes of the world be locked out of vaccination without dramatically increasing the risk of newer, deadlier and more transmissible variants emerging.

Yet, that is exactly what we’ve done. For over a year, Canada and a handful of European nations have bogged down negotiations at the World Trade Organizations (WTO) that could ramp up the global production and distribution of vaccines.

Drafted by South Africa and India in October 2020 and supported by more than 120 member states, the proposal calls for patents and other intellectual property measures covering vaccines and other much-needed COVID-19 medical products to be temporarily lifted. The move could help diversify vaccine supply, bring down prices and increase access for poorer countries.

Ironically, continued negotiations around this proposal were among the casualties of the new variant. The long-anticipated ministerial meeting of the WTO, set to take place in Geneva this week, was cancelled due to flight restrictions imposed on delegates from southern Africa, where the Omicron variant is spreading rapidly. Less than a quarter of the population in the region is fully vaccinated. And across the African continent as a whole, fewer than 7 per cent are fully immunized.

South Africans know first-hand how crucial generic production of patented medicines can be in fighting a pandemic. In the 1990s, South Africa clashed with pharmaceutical multinationals over access to affordable antiretroviral while battling the spread of AIDS. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was obvious to the country’s leaders that Big Pharma’s hunger for profit would similarly limit the availability of doses for vaccines.

Sadly, though not surprisingly, rich countries sided with Big Pharma over South Africa’s reasonable request.

Alongside several European nations, Canada has been in engaging in all sorts of dilatory tactics at the WTO to block any agreement on temporarily lifting vaccine patents. And so far, they have been successful.

Officially, Canada has still not made up its mind on South Africa’s request. Trudeau and his ministers evade anything resembling a clear stance when asked if they are for or against the patents waiver, instead resorting to boilerplate responses about “constructive dialogue” and “consensus-based” solutions.

But in Geneva, Canada’s trade officials shamefully echo Big Pharma’s claims that the patents jealously guarded by Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson pose no barrier to vaccine supply.

This subservience to Big Pharma is shredding Canada’s international credibility. This week, the South African envoy in Canada criticized Ottawa for punishing African nations while failing to support a waiver to improve vaccine equity. Recently global legal experts concluded that states like Canada that are currently impeding the proposed waiver at the WTO are breaching their legal obligations to the right to health, life, equality and science for all.

Justin Trudeau must drop the doublespeak and come out clearly in favour of lifting patents at the WTO. Improving Canada’s lamentable record on vaccine donations (only five per cent of pledged doses have actually been delivered, worst among the OECD nations) and greenlighting domestic manufacturing of generic vaccines for export are two other urgent measures that Canada could take now, regardless of what happens at the WTO.

If our leaders continue to sleepwalk from one disaster to the next, we must wake them up. Canada’s future lies in the world ending this pandemic. That requires us to do our best to help vaccinate the whole world.

It’s time for Canada to shed the label of a vaccine hoarder and become a nation that fights vaccine inequity.

Ketty Nivyabandi is secretary general of Amnesty International Canada. Dr. Madhukar Pai is a professor and Canada Research Chair in Epidemiology and Global Health at McGill University. Christina Warner is co-executive director of the Council of Canadians.

This article originally appeared in The Hill Times.