Canada’s COVID-19 vaccination rate is 76% – ten times higher than the entire African continent.
While people in the affluent West had preferential access to multiple rounds of vaccination, many people, particularly in Africa and the Indian subcontinent, have not received a single dose. This has allowed the virus to thrive and speed up the mutation process, which has added months and perhaps years to the pandemic.
Wherever COVID-19 has the chance to linger, variants develop and travel. This completely predictable pattern will repeat itself unless countries with resources share vaccines with others who cannot afford them.
Wealthy countries have yet to deliver on their pledges to ensure equitable global access to vaccines through COVAX (an international collaboration to source and distribute COVID-19 vaccines) and other initiatives. The resulting lack of broad global vaccination coverage made the rise of another variant like Omicron inevitable.
For Canada, it is more important than ever to carefully balance the supply of vaccines for home use while prioritizing international exchanges – and promoting regional manufacturing.
Millions of pre-ordered vaccine doses
When the COVID-19 crisis began, major manufacturers pre-sold their vaccines to governments while they were being developed but before they were tested to fund their work, including clinical trials.
Canada and other developed countries ordered millions of doses, enough to supply their populations many times over, with promises to share their surplus vaccines with other countries. It didn’t happen fast enough. While logistical, legal and other barriers have hampered the wider adoption of vaccines, the will to overcome them appears to be lacking.
The momentum gained from the accelerated development of vaccinations has been lost.
Third doses and booster syringes will be important in controlling both the ongoing Delta threat and the spread of Omicron. Canadians should definitely follow public health guidelines and get their vaccinations when recommended. Once the vaccine doses are in Canadian freezers and refrigerators, they go nowhere, and lowering a dose doesn’t mean it will be passed on to other parts of the world that need it.
At the federal level, Canada should only buy what it needs domestically and commit to expediting vaccine distribution elsewhere. The same goes for all wealthy countries.
The rise of Omicron
The rise of Omicron is particularly frustrating. From the beginning it was clear that the spread of COVID-19 had to be slowed down worldwide, precisely to prevent the development of variants. This message should have been clearer after the agile alpha variant had spread. In the case of the fast attack of the Delta variant, it should have been even clearer.
Variants like Delta and Omicron will appear when the burden of infection is high and vaccination rates are low, as is the case in many countries in the Global South. The identification of variants according to their country of origin continues a long tradition of portraying people of race as originators or carriers of diseases.
Indeed, the world has been served well by South Africa’s admirable disease surveillance investments that uncovered the latest COVID-19 threat.
There is no way of knowing where in the world the Omicron variant actually appeared, even though it was first discovered in South Africa. South Africa was already on this path with HIV and had a well-developed pandemic surveillance system that made it possible to detect this variant.
Investing in Global Health
Canada has historically not invested in global health, infectious disease research, or vaccine innovation and manufacture.
As a result, our country is a consumer of COVID-19 vaccines and not a contributor to global supply. Although Canada had small manufacturing facilities capable of contributing a few million doses, Canada lacked the political will to repurpose these facilities to support global vaccine efforts.
Regional manufacturing at home and abroad could enable faster global vaccination. Vaccine makers are already using local manufacturers in India and Africa to make vaccine doses, but those doses are being shipped to the west rather than being available locally. Sharing knowledge and technology that can help countries in the Global South develop vaccines and vaccinate their own people will be of greater long-term benefit to the world than trying to stop variation by closing borders.
We invested in domestic manufacturing in Canada during the crisis, but it will take years to staff these plants with trained staff, let alone develop innovative vaccines that are better suited for the global south.
Rather than being consumers who contribute to an unfair distribution of vaccines, we have the opportunity to incorporate vaccine capital into these investments.
We can commit to training people from countries where vaccines are most needed to improve access to expertise. We can commit to global partnerships to distribute production fairly, and we can advocate change.
As we rebuild and invest in vaccine development and production, we have the opportunity to lead vaccine equity and reduce the burden of infectious diseases now and in the future.
Dawn ME Bowdish, Canada Research Chair in Aging and Immunity, McMaster University and Chandrima Chakraborty, Professor of English and Cultural Studies; Director, Center for Peace Studies, McMaster University
This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.