Vaccines dominate Trudeau’s final day of international trip

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has wrapped up a mini-summit with leaders of the European Union that was part business, part thank-you for co-operation in securing Canada a share of European-manufactured coronavirus vaccines.

There has been a lot of discussion between Canada and the EU over vaccine supply, which in the early stages proceeded in fits and starts.

Charles Michel, president of the European Council, took pains on Tuesday to emphasize that the EU had shipped 16 million doses of vaccine to Canada, which is 60 per cent of Canada’s total so far.

He insisted the EU is ramping up production to meet global demand and sharing it through COVAX, the international vaccine organization that ensures doses are distributed equitably.

Increasing vaccine supply, vaccine sharing and getting the world immunized as quickly as possible were prominent features of last weekend’s G7 Summit in Cornwall, England.

Goal of 11 billion doses

The World Health Organization (WHO) has set a goal of immunizing 70 per cent of the world’s population by this time next year, an endeavour for which it needs 11 billion doses.

There’s been a lot of debate and criticism over the EU’s opposition to temporarily waiving vaccine intellectual property protections.

Up until this point, the EU has said there are other solutions that can be explored to increase access to affordable coronavirus vaccines.

South Africa and India recently proposed the waiver of intellectual property protections for a whole host of coronavirus-related products, including vaccines, at the World Trade Organization. A vaccine waiver is considered critical in order to ramp up production, especially in the developing world, WHO officials have said.

Last week, EU lawmakers voted in favour of a resolution that calls for a patent waiver, with several countries saying it’s necessary to help end the coronavirus pandemic.

In front of the Canadian media, Michel defended the handling of the issue, saying there’s a lot to consider beyond the waiver, including how additional manufacturing capacity can be created.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, right, European Council President Charles Michel, left, and Trudeau pose after participating in a media conference at the end of an EU-Canada summit in Brussels, Belgium on Tuesday. (Francisco Seco/Associated Press)

“The liberalization of intellectual property will not be the magic bullet, the silver bullet,” he said. “We need a global approach. We have to take into consideration the transfer of technology.”

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the wider discussion must consider the potential economic impact, because intellectual property rights “are the reward for innovation.”

‘Complexities … to be worked through’

Trudeau said Canada has been active in the global discussions and is committed to seeing a resolution and the goal of getting as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible.

“There are complexities that need to be worked through,” Trudeau said.

On Tuesday, following the meeting, Trudeau also announced a new bilateral Dialogue on Health with the EU. The aim is to enhance engagement on priority health issues outside of direct pandemic policy, such as mental health.

The concept of vaccine passports also came up on Tuesday, highlighting differences between Europe and Canada. The EU has in the works a system of vaccine passports to help restart international travel, while Canada does not.

Trudeau ended his trip with a tour of the Pfizer plant in Puurs, Belgium, that has been manufacturing most of the vaccines being shipped to Canada. It was an opportunity to say thank-you to the workers producing the vaccine under extraordinary circumstances.

Luc van Steenwinkel, the general manager of the Puurs vaccine manufacturing facility, told CBC News that the plant turns out 100 million doses per month to countries all over the world. 

He said the company’s staff has doubled in size — to 3,300 — during the crisis, and that employees are very proud of their role in helping bring the pandemic to an eventual end. 

Trudeau is expected to be back home tonight and headed into quarantine.

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