Canada and the COVID-19 waiver

An unethical position that needs to change.

May 1, 2021

5-minute read

OVER THE PAST few months, Canada and a group of mostly wealthy nations blocking the proposed World Trade Organization (WTO) COVID-19 waiver put forward by South Africa and India have come under increasing pressure to change their position. The waiver now has the support of over 100 mostly low- and middle-income nations, the WHO, several UN agencies, and a growing global solidarity movement that has organized public events, civil society letters, and petitions signed by hundreds of thousands of people.

In Canada, on March 10, 2021, a coalition of over 40 organizations, including Amnesty International, Unifor, the United Church and
the CCPA, wrote a forceful open letter in support of the waiver to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. This movement has put the Trudeau government in a difficult bind. On the one hand, Trudeau and several ministers have echoed the call that “No one is safe until everyone is safe.” Canada has contributed $940 million to the ACT-Accelerator,
a global collaboration aimed at developing and distributing affordable COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. On the other hand, while claiming it does not outright reject the waiver, Canada has also refused to support it. Instead, it has held firm with a group of wealthy countries blocking and delaying the waiver, dragging things on with requests for information and clarifications, with no end in sight.

Canada has emerged as a member of a small group of countries that represent around 13% of the world’s population but have bought up over 50% of the world’s promised vaccines.

Canada’s position: contradictory or consistent?

On the face of it, Canada’s position on the COVID-19 waiver might seem a bit contradictory. At the same time as the government is claiming to be a leader in global efforts to produce and deliver affordable vaccines and treatments, it is blocking a major initiative led by Southern countries to scale up manufacturing and distribution of those same vaccines and treatments.

Looked at another way, however, there is great consistency in Canada’s approach.

While the Canadian government certainly wants vaccines and treatments rolled out as quickly as possible, its definition of what is possible is tightly constrained. The number one constraint, and Canada’s clear priority at the WTO, is the defence of intellectual property (IP) rights.

There are many complex reasons why Canada is such an adamant defender of IP rights. Direct lobbying by large pharmaceutical firms is
no doubt one major consideration. According to the Government of Canada’s Registry of Lobbyists, over the past 12 months, the pharmaceutical lobbying group, Innovative Medicines Canada, has met with government officials 44 times. These meetings covered a range of topics, including explicitly IP rights at the WTO.

Beyond this, it is likely the case that many Liberal politicians believe the arguments made by big pharma, and the corporate sector more broadly, that unbreakable IP protections are needed to spur vaccine innovation. This position has been criticized on numerous fronts, including by those who have pointed out that tens of billions of dollars in public funding has played a key role driving vaccine development, along with billions of dollars more in guaranteed, advanced contracts from governments for the vaccines.

Critics, moreover, argue that existing IP protections have been blocking low- and middle-income countries and their industries from making better and quicker use of new knowledge around vaccines and treatment, ramping up the manufacture and distribution of needed medicines and equipment.

Wealthy countries have argued that existing flexibilities within WTO rules allow countries sufficient space to address the crisis through such mechanisms as compulsory licensing. South Africa, India, and their supporters. However, counter that such mechanisms are too slow, exist only on a “product by product” or “country by country” basis, and do not protect low- and middle-income countries from the very real threat of costly litigation with big pharma or Western governments down the road.

Canada, for its part, remains undeterred and firmly committed to defending IP rights at all costs.

Canada: a world leader in “vaccine nationalism”

Despite its faith in the global pharmaceutical industry at the WTO, the Canadian government is anxious about the relatively sluggish rate of vaccine distribution at home. Here, its primary approach has been spending on two main fronts.

First, Canada has pledged over $1 billion in advanced purchases for vaccines, all of which are produced elsewhere. In doing so, Canada has emerged as a member of a small group of countries that represent around 13% of the world’s population but have bought up over 50% of the world’s promised vaccines.

Even within this elite group, Canada is a leader, having bought more vaccines per capita than any other country, enough to eventually vaccinate 4 or 5 times the Canadian population.

Second, Canada has also begun to spend money on “made in Canada” vaccines, which will not be ready for many months. This has involved tens of millions of dollars upgrading facilities, including $126 million for a facility in Montreal in partnership with the private company, Novavax, and $173 million to produce vaccines in Quebec with Medicago.

These strategies are entirely consistent with Canada’s resistance to the WTO waiver, as it avoids any changes to the existing vaccine production system in favour of doling out support and subsidies to private companies.

Perhaps most significantly, this strategy is a common one in neoliberal times, pursued by relatively rich countries that have the money to do so. Many low- and middle-income countries, however, are not in the position to follow suit, and will find themselves increasingly falling behind in vaccine manufacturing and access, now and into the future.

By some estimates, the majority of people in low-income nations may not have access to vaccines until 2024.

The age-old strategy of aid and charity

Confronted with the injustices of the global vaccine rollout, Canada has drawn upon the age-old strategy of aid and charity. In particular, Canada has sought to position itself as a leader in the COVAX initiative, a global vaccine alliance aimed at providing equitable access to vaccines for low- and middle-income countries.

Canada has pledged $220 million to COVAX to purchase vaccines for other countries, combined with $220 million for vaccines for Canadians. While Canada’s involvement has been welcomed, its reputation has been tarnished by the decision to draw 1.9 million doses for Canadians in the first round of availability.

While technically this is within Canada’s rights, COVAX was designed first and foremost to assist low- and middle-income countries and not necessarily, in the first round, Canada, a wealthy country and world leader in “vaccine nationalism.”

Either way, what is perhaps most notable about the COVAX strategy is that it seeks to replace urgent demands for reforms, such as those represented by the WTO waiver, with paternalism and charity. The money comes with acceptance of the status quo.

In this case, the status quo means that millions in low- and middle-income countries will have to wait much longer for vaccines than those in rich countries like Canada, and longer than the world would be capable of if the existing IP barriers were eliminated or reduced, rather than preserved and protected. By some estimates, the majority of people in low-income nations may not have access to vaccines until 2024.

Canada’s charitable position, moreover, falls short compared to the efforts of emerging powers like China, India, and Russia. China, in particular, has massively ramped up its own vaccine production and pledged half a billion doses to more than 45 countries. This means that China is offering 10 times more vaccines abroad than it has distributed at home.

While some have raised concerns that Chinese companies have not been fully transparent on the trials of their vaccines, they have been embraced internationally in a context where rich countries have been buying up so much of the potential supply. As a result, Huizhong Wu and Kristen Gelineau from the Associated Press suggest that, “a large part of the world’s population will end up inoculated not with the fancy Western vaccines boasting headline-grabbing efficacy rates, but with China’s humble, traditionally made shots.”

As a growing chorus of nations, movements, and international organizations call out the unethical hypocrisy of Western nations, valuing IP rights over human lives, the time has come for Canada to change its position at the WTO. The global appeal that “no one is safe until everyone is safe,” is not just a
slogan, but a call to action.

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