Protect Canadians from another COVID-19 wave by ramping up vaccination in developing countries, experts say

As many Canadians embrace a return to summer gatherings and activities amid relatively high vaccination rates and dropping COVID-19 case counts, millions of people around the world are still suffering the ravages of the pandemic as they desperately wait for vaccines, doctors and scientists say. 

“To be honest it’s sad and infuriating to see how other countries have just [been] taking everything that was on the shelf,” said Pablo Tsukayama, a microbiologist at Cayetano Heredia University in Lima, Peru. 

As of Monday, 70 per cent of Canadians had received at least one dose of COVID vaccine, according to online research publication Our World in Data. About 26 per cent of the world’s population have had at least one shot. 

But that percentage is driven up by rich countries. It’s a stark contrast with the struggle on the ground in low-income countries, where only one per cent of people, on average, have received any vaccine at all. 

In Africa, the rise of variant-driven infections coupled with a lack of vaccine coverage has plunged many countries into crisis. 

“Deaths have climbed steeply for the past five weeks. This is a clear warning sign that hospitals in the most impacted countries are reaching a breaking point,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Africa, in an online update.  

If Canada, along with other rich countries, doesn’t move quickly to dramatically scale up the amount of vaccine it contributes to those countries, some experts say, it will not only be a global citizenship failure — but it will also put Canadians at risk of another wave of COVID-19.  

“[It’s] not simply a matter of charity. It’s a matter of self-interest,” said Dr. Prabhat Jha, a global health researcher at Unity Health Toronto and the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. 

‘A global war’

“This is a global war. You can’t simply say we’re going to vaccinate Canadians and we’ll be safe.” 

That’s because countries with low vaccination rates and uncontrolled transmission of the virus become “variant factories,” Jha said.  

The longer people remain unvaccinated, the bigger the chance that another variant will develop that evades protection by our current vaccines, he said. 

And like the more-transmissible delta variant that’s becoming increasingly dominant, new variants will make their way to Canada, experts say.   

“Global security and our actual safety ourselves really does depend on getting a lid on things,” said Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Alberta.

Many of the low and middle-income countries still hardest hit by COVID-19 as they struggle to get vaccines are popular vacation destinations for Canadians, she said.   

‘People think it’s over’

“Here, it almost feels like people think it’s over,” Saxinger said. “I’ve even had a lot of people increasingly say, ‘Do you think it’s going to be OK to go to, you know, holiday destination X in the fall or the winter?’ And I’m like, ‘Holiday destination X is still going to be in the pandemic’ … unless we actually start .. helping more aggressively.”  

Because the virus spreads exponentially, speed is critical right now, Saxinger said. 

“The bang for your buck for helping is so much greater if you do it earlier.”

WATCH | Prioritize 1st COVID-19 vaccine doses globally over booster shots, WHO says

The World Health Organization says getting first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine to everyone in the world needs to be be a higher priority than getting booster shots to people in some wealthy countries. 2:01

Canada has pledged about 118 million vaccine doses for low- and middle-income countries, including 100 million announced at the G7 Summit in June. Eighty-seven million of those doses had already been bought with contributions to the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, launched by the WHO in April 2020.  

The remaining 13 million doses pledged at the G7 are surplus doses procured by the Canadian government.  

In July, the federal government announced it would donate 17.7 million surplus doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, bringing the total current pledge to about 30 million doses. 

That day, the government also announced it would match individual donations to UNICEF, up to $10 million, until Sept. 6. 

The donation-matching campaign could provide enough money to vaccinate another four million people in struggling countries, said Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand and International Development Minister Karina Gould. 

In an interview with CBC News on Friday, Gould said the federal government was still finalizing contracts with COVAX, the global vaccine-sharing program, to get the 30 million vaccine doses to the people who need them. Gould said she expected it would take another couple of weeks.

“I think Canada has actually really stepped up and done our fair share,” Gould said when asked whether Canada should ramp up its efforts in global vaccination.

Thelma Modise, a member of the South African Police Service (SAPS), receives a dose of COVID-19 vaccine in Soweto, South Africa. As of July 18, 7.3 per cent of South Africa’s population had received at least one dose, according to Our World in Data. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

In addition to being one of the top dose contributors per capita in the world, the federal government also helped fund the initial development of COVID-19 vaccines and contributed to logistical support efforts to ensure countries are able to administer them, she said.   

When asked if Canada will be offering any further vaccines, Gould said the government was “constantly assessing … our pipeline and our availability of vaccines.”  

“Our top priority is ensuring that every Canadian who wants access to a COVID-19 vaccine gets one,” she said. “As the prime minister has said since the beginning, if we have excess supplies we’ll be donating it.” 

‘War’ effort needed

But donating excess vaccines isn’t enough, Jha said, arguing that the global crisis requires a “war” effort, including using Canada’s purchasing prowess to buy more vaccines for developing countries, as well as using its diplomatic clout to put pressure on vaccine-manufacturing countries to make more — and quickly.   

“We have to do that urgently,” Jha said. “It’s in our own interest to fight the variants where they occur, not when they show up in our borders.”

In an email to CBC News, a spokesperson for GAVI — the global alliance for vaccination and a co-founder of COVAX — praised Canada’s contributions, but acknowledged that moving faster would be a big help. 

“The best immediate way that countries like Canada can help is by converting pledges of doses into doses delivered in country and in arms as soon as possible,” GAVI said. 

“The global supply crunch is now — the supply landscape will be radically different in a few months. Delivering vaccines now means saving lives.” 

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