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With Omicron, it’s time for Canada to support global access to COVID vaccines

Latest variant reveals need for IP patent waiver, true danger of ‘vaccine apartheid’

Canadian PoliticsHuman RightsCOVID-19

A vial of the COVID-19 vaccine is prepared to be administered at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland, December 21, 2020. DOD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II/Flickr.

Government gift-giving isn’t a very common occurrence. And even if it was, “no government is a Santa Claus,” as former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once famously quipped. As such, the probability of the federal government embracing philanthropy this holiday season seems highly unlikely.

However, it’s high time Ottawa made an exception to its gift-giving rule.

Indeed, for almost two hellish years, Canadians have struggled through a world-upending pandemic, one which has taken tens of thousands of lives prematurely and caused unprecedented economic stress.

Now, with the emergence of the highly transmissible omicron variant, the Trudeau government should throw a lifeline to Canadians—and the world—by putting its support behind a temporary suspension of intellectual property (IP) rights related to COVID vaccines.

According to the latest statistics from Our World in Data, only three percent of people in low-income countries are fully vaccinated. In several nations, like Haiti, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, fewer than one percent of the population is inoculated.

Meanwhile, consider the situation in the relatively wealthy Global North.

As detailed by Oxfam, “Rich nations representing just 14 percent of the world’s population have bought up 53 percent of all the most promised vaccines,” while an even greater 73 percent of all vaccines have gone to just 10 countries, leaving the remaining 27 percent to be fought over by the rest of the world.

The difference between rich and poor countries in the actual administration of doses is even more stark.

According to Oxfam, “rich countries have administrated 61 times more doses per capita than poorer countries and delivered only 14 per cent of the 1.8 billion doses promised to poor countries.”

While there are many factors that have contributed to this global vaccine discrepancy (vaccine hesitancy being one of them) the most significant one is the inability of low-income countries to secure an adequate supply of doses.

Such inequality is not without consequence.

As a result of insufficient access to vaccines, poorer countries have had to contend with longer and more deadly waves of the pandemic than were experienced in the Global North. This has proven crippling to both their national economies and health care infrastructure.

What’s more, lacking access to widespread inoculation, the coronavirus has been allowed to replicate at a much higher rate in these countries. Rajiv J. Shah, President of the Rockefeller Foundation, estimates that new variants are “six to eight times more likely to come from less developed countries” merely because of their slow vaccination rate.

As we have already seen, the emergence of more transmissible and potentially more deadly variants is of immense concern to every country—connected as they are by economic globalization and border-crossing supply chain networks.

At the time of writing, provinces including Ontario, Québec and Prince Edward Island have introduced new public health measures to slow the spread of omicron in Canada. Many other provinces will likely soon follow suit, especially if the variant continues to spread with a doubling time of just over three days. If it does, Canadians can reasonably expect high caseloads, more travel restrictions, and a general atmosphere of anxiety, fear, and uncertainty.

As Nobel Economics Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz has written, “new mutations of the virus will continue to cost lives and upend our interconnected global economy until everyone, everywhere has access to a safe and effective vaccine.”

This brings us back to the solution at hand.

Canada’s support of the waiver of IP protections on COVID-19 vaccines would be an integral step in speeding up global vaccine manufacturing, distribution, and administration.

It has been more than a year since South Africa and India drafted a waiver at the World Trade Organization (WTO) calling for patents on COVID vaccines to be suspended. But the proposal came up against steady opposition from wealthy countries including the United States, Canada and the European Union.

Advocates of the waiver—more than 120 governments and counting—have convincingly argued that it could “unlock the strong manufacturing capability and capacity that exists worldwide to upscale vaccine production” and administration, especially in low-income countries. Not only would this help save lives, but it would also speed up a global economic recovery, while stifling the replication of deadly COVID variants.

Of course, a waiver of IP rights alone will not solve the issue of vaccine inequity entirely. Vaccine hesitancy and other logistical roadblocks will still persist in speeding up inoculations in various parts of the world.

Yet, as former President of Ireland Mary Robinson has written, the “waiver remains the necessary precondition to ramp up and redistribute the global supply of vaccines and other lifesaving tools.”

Thus far, however, Ottawa has been loath to take a stand on the issue, perhaps believing that supporting the waiver would curtail the immense profits being made by the handful of pharmaceutical corporations currently in control of the IP rights.

In effect, the Global North has allowed its fears of pharmaceutical retribution get in the way of establishing international consensus and implementing a lifesaving, pandemic-eliminating initiative.

This cannot stand any longer.

For the sake of speeding up global inoculations, eliminating ‘vaccine apartheid’ and drastically reducing the proliferation of deadly variants, the Canadian government should immediately announce its support for the WTO’s temporary vaccine waiver. It’s both the prudent and the right thing to do—for Canadians and citizens of the world alike.

The federal government might never be a Santa Claus, but by supporting the waiver this holiday season, it can at least prevent itself from becoming the scrooge of this story.

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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