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It’s not too late for Canada to support a temporary waiver of COVID vaccine patents

By refusing to lift patent protections, wealthy countries have guaranteed huge profits for Big Pharma at expense of Global South

COVID-19Canadian PoliticsHuman Rights

It is not too late for Canada to support the temporary waiving of intellectual property rights to enable poor countries to import cheap generic versions of patented COVID-19 vaccines. Photo by the Asian Development Bank/Flickr.

Canada is in a strange spot these days.

After securing enough vaccine doses to cover each citizen five times over, we are now the world’s largest hoarder of COVID-19 inoculations. Yet, at the same time, Canada ranks just 42nd in the global ranking of vaccines administered per 100 people. According to the latest figures, Canada has administered just 4.5 doses per 100 people compared to, for example, the United Kingdom at 29.03 and the United States at 20.56.

While a majority of governments and their citizens would happily trade positions to be in such a ‘predicament,’ Canadians have been far less enthused.

According to a recent poll conducted by the Angus Reid Institute, almost three-in-five Canadians now say the government has done a “poor job of securing COVID-19 doses for the population.”

This represents a significant disconnect, and one that should concern the government, especially considering that as recently as December, only 23 percent of Canadians viewed its vaccine procurement strategy so unfavourably.

Feeling this public pressure, the federal government decided to draw on a supply of coronavirus vaccines from COVAX, a World Health Organization program designed to help some of the world’s poorest countries access more affordable vaccines.

While other countries, like New Zealand and Singapore, similarly received vaccines from COVAX, Canada won distinction for being the only G7 country to dip into the fund.

Not surprisingly, the move displeased many Canadians, particularly progressives, who were irate that such a wealthy country would further exploit low-income nations—after already hoarding vaccines from them—without noticeably increasing the vaccination rate of its own citizens.

As for the governments of the Global South, it is difficult to imagine that they were pleased with the Canadian government.

Vaccine hoarding was bad enough. But now dipping into the COVAX fund?

All is not lost, however.

There is still opportunity for the Trudeau government to rewrite its wrongs and improve its reputation, all while increasing vaccine distribution, both at home and abroad.

Back in October 2020, India and South Africa put forward a motion at the World Trade Organization’s Council on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS), asking for a temporary waiver of the intellectual property patent rights on COVID-19 vaccines. In other words, it is a proposal to end the monopolization of vaccine medical knowledge, and to allow less wealthy countries (containing most of the world’s populations) to produce vaccines far quicker and more affordably.

It is a worthwhile initiative, and one all citizens should support for its potential to increase the manufacturing and administration of vaccines worldwide, while also creating a more equitable distribution of doses.

For it to pass, however, the motion requires at least 75 percent of member nations to support it; a formidable challenge for the Indian and South African governments. In the months that have ensued, the motion has gathered significant momentum. It now has the support or endorsement of over 100 Global South countries, along with countless civil society groups, like Amnesty International and Oxfam.

Unfortunately, there are still far too many wealthy countries in the Global North (including Canada) who have opposed this motion, as do the major pharmaceutical companies.

To the pharmaceutical industry, in particular, even just a temporary waiver on just some patent rights is an unacceptable infringement on the immense concentration of wealth and influence they have built up over the pandemic.

For any with lingering doubt over this, consider the fact that two companies alone, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, are expected to rake in tens of billions of dollars from their COVID-19 vaccines. This, even as Stephen Lewis, Canada’s former United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, has pointed out, “The great mass of funding that has gone into the discovery and manufacture and delivery of these vaccines has come from public funds.”

As for many countries of the Global North, most are in no great hurry to relinquish the monopolization of vaccines they currently have. According to research conducted by the Duke University Global Health Institute, just “16 percent of the world’s population” most of them from the wealthier countries, “have secured 60 percent of the available COVID-19 doses.”

With this immense wealth and vaccine monopolization in jeopardy, rich countries simply have no strong inclination to waive, even temporarily, the intellectual property patent rights on vaccines.

It is a shame, for as advocates like Akshaya Kumar have argued, such a waiver has the potential to drastically increase the global manufacturing of vaccines, including even in Canada. Not only would this ensure the inoculation of millions more in need across the globe, but it would also help speed up a global economic recovery, much to the benefit of Canadians and the world’s poor alike.

With an upcoming TRIPS meeting scheduled for next month, it is not too late for Canada to do the right thing and support the temporary waiving of intellectual property rights, both for the good of its citizens, and for the good of the world.

Wyatt James Schierman is a freelance writer from Alberta and a regular columnist with Loonie Politics. His writing has also been published in the Ottawa Citizen, the Toronto Star, the Calgary Herald, Huffington Post Canada and the Hill Times. When he is not writing, Wyatt is traveling abroad as an election observer.

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