Canada's Covid-19 vaccines shouldn't come at such an ugly price

An agonising wait has begun until deliveries can resume at the scale needed to fight the pandemic

A pedestrian passes in front of a sign for a Covid-19 testing site in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. Even though Canada has secured more vaccines per capita than any other nation, "it doesn't mean much" when the bulk is not yet being delivered, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto said. Photographer: Christinne Muschi/Bloomberg
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Things seemed in place late last year. There was good news: human trials of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were successful, we found out in late November. As a result, rich countries ordered vaccine doses multiple times their population.

These countries could afford to make bets on different vaccine manufacturers, hedging against failure in the race against the coronavirus. The plan was to inoculate most people by spring and achieve close to universal coverage by fall.

Meanwhile, developing countries would have to scrounge through the remnants. An alliance called Covax, spearheaded by the World Health Organisation, would procure and distribute vaccines to them but it would only be able to do so for a small percentage of the population early on. Universal vaccination would have to wait, probably until well into 2022.

But it was all wishful thinking. Vaccine deliveries were delayed – partly because the vaccine roll-out was poorly planned and partly because companies experienced difficulties ramping up production to cater to their sovereign customers.

An agonising wait in Canada has begun until deliveries can resume at the scale needed to arrest the pandemic. Pfizer and Moderna deliveries have slowed, and the EU has introduced export controls that require countries in the bloc to seek authorisation before exporting vaccines. Canada's Pfizer doses are manufactured in Belgium. And while Ottawa has obtained verbal assurances that its shipments will not be affected, it really is a free for all that could change from one day to the next, and constitutes a garroting of the concept of international trade and solidarity, especially because the crisis was caused by the EU's slow, bureaucratic vaccine roll-out.

Of course, Canada has itself bungled the roll-out of whatever doses it has procured, because for some reason the crisis is not being treated with the urgency it deserves. According to figures compiled by the University of Oxford, Canada has administered 2.6 doses of the vaccines for every 100 people in the country, a figure that puts it far behind Israel, the UAE and the UK, Serbia, Malta, Slovenia, Lithuania, Poland, and Estonia.

Inequality has always led to the poorest paying a disproportionate price

There are many logistical challenges to distribution in a country as vast as Canada. The provinces are largely in charge of administering the vaccines, rather than the federal government, which only allocated them to the provinces. And special syringes had to be ordered to allow the extraction of six doses from each vial of Pfizer vaccine rather than five, to maximise supplies.

What should we glean from this? First, the competition over resources that was sparked by the pandemic, when countries tried to hoard personal protective equipment like masks, is in full force again over the vaccines. It is an ugly race, one that has highlighted the inequality between rich and poor on a global scale, and the miserliness of even the greatest proponents of co-operation and globalisation, such as the EU.

Perhaps it should not has come as a surprise that Europe, the fortress that entered a state of hysteria at the prospect of refugees seeking shelter on its shores, would now seek to limit the export of a vaccine that was developed by immigrants in Europe. But such is the irony of this zeitgeist. As some commentators in the European press noted, the EU’s actions are the best advertisement for Brexit.

A pedestrian walks past signs for a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. Even though Canada has secured more vaccines per capita than any other nation, "it doesn't mean much" when the bulk is not yet being delivered, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto said. Photographer: Christinne Muschi/Bloomberg
Montreal, Canada. Bloomberg

The protectionism that is now the order of the day has pushed Canada into taking matters into its own hands. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a deal with pharmaceutical giant Novavax, whose vaccine candidate was submitted for approval late last week in the country. The deal will allow it to manufacture millions of doses of the vaccine at a plant in Montreal by fall. It is the first Covid-19 vaccine candidate that will be manufactured in Canada, that had so far relied on the usual rules of international trade to procure vaccines.

These struggles may as well be taking place in an alternate universe compared to the experiences of the rest of the world. Most developing countries, particularly in the Middle East, cannot afford the costly lockdowns that have been instituted in the West to limit to the spread of the virus. Nor do they have access to the vast resources that allow a country like Canada to pre-order vaccine doses multiple times its population. Instead they wait, with little to do but attempt to carry on with their lives, as the coronavirus ravages their communities.

The pandemic has re-ordered the lives, social structures and economies of much of the world, but it has not changed one key thing: the inequality that has always led to the poorest and most vulnerable paying a disproportionate price for our crises and failures endures. Rather than spark global solidarity against a common foe, too many have instead turned inward and miserly, and continue to act as if the reigning inequality is the natural order of things. It would a shame if this disease endured beyond the defeat of the coronavirus.

Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada and a columnist for The National