OTTAWA — Canada has secured a portfolio of COVID-19 vaccines candidates with enough doses to vaccinate its population of 38 million four times over but the federal minister involved in ensuring equitable global access says its premature to talk about redistributing what is left over.
The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is the only one that has been approved by Health Canada so far. Canada has signed deals with six other vaccine candidates that could result in a domestic supply of up to 429 million doses.
“We’re not there yet,” International Development Minister Karina Gould told HuffPost Canada in an interview, adding that any talk about a glut in vaccine supply is a discussion about a “hypothetical surplus” at this point.
“We don’t actually have a surplus of physical vaccines,” Gould said. “We don’t have a closet where we’re hiding vaccines right now.”
Watch: Canada boosts COVID-19 foreign aid by $485M. Story continues below video.
The first doses of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine started last week with front-line health care workers and long-term care home residents being among the first to receive their doses — a glimmer of hope that a immunization campaign for the general population is on its way.
COVID-19 has been linked to at least 14,040 deaths as of Saturday, the same day Canada surpassed 500,000 total reported cases, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
There are at least 75,695 active cases across the country — a number that will continue to rise with the daily case counts in Ontario and Quebec regularly breaking new records.
With so much focus on vaccines and their distribution, some non-governmental organizations have raised their concerns about equity and access after observing a handful of rich countries corner the market for the global supply of COVID-19 vaccine candidates.
“Updated data shows that rich nations representing just 14 per cent of the world’s population have bought up 53 per cent of all the most promising vaccines so far,” states a news release from Oxfam Canada.
Amnesty International is another high-profile non-government organization that has called out Canada specifically for hoarding vaccines.
Canada is a participant in COVAX, a global initiative led by the World Health Organization, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and Gavi, an international vaccine alliance that provides immunization to the world’s poorest countries.
COVAX hit its initial fundraising goal in November of raising $2 billion from rich nations by the end of the year. That first round of money was to ensure the purchase of one billion doses of a vaccine for 92 eligible countries that could not otherwise afford to buy them.
The goal of COVAX is to pool buying power, fueled by financial contributions from richer nations, to secure enough vaccines to vaccinate a fifth of the world’s population before the end of 2021.
To achieve this goal, more money is needed. An additional $5 billion will need to be raised in the new year to purchase new vaccines as they are approved and become available.
As of Friday, COVAX has signed agreements to secure two billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine candidates.
“It’s a novel mechanism, we’ve never done something like this before in the world,” Gould said of the COVAX facility, calling it the “second most-signed agreement in the world” after the Paris climate agreement.
And like the Paris agreement, the United States is not a signatory.
Asked if Canada will have a say in where a potential surplus of domestic vaccine supply could be redistributed, Gould stressed the chosen multilateral approach by participating in COVAX.
“We’re right at the very beginning of this process in terms of rolling out the vaccines right around the world,” she said. “We’re part of the governance structure. We help in the decision-making, but we’re not the sole decision-makers,” she said.
Last week, Canada announced nearly half a billion dollars to ensure access to COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines in developing countries. The funding includes a $75-million pledge to help COVAX deliver the vaccine in lower-income countries.
Gould told reporters on Monday the money also includes up to $5 million to “help establish a mechanism to manage the global donation and exchange of vaccines between countries.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that a vaccine redistribution plan will be drafted if Canada ends up with a surplus of physical vaccines.
“As Canada gets vaccinated, if we have more vaccines than necessary, absolutely we will be sharing with the world,” said Trudeau during a year-end interview with CTV News’ “Question Period” that aired Sunday.
With only a limited supply of one vaccine currently available in Canada, it’s still unclear what the timeline could look like in sharing potential excess doses with the world.But having vaccines in hand is only one piece of the puzzle to ending the pandemic.
Gould, paraphrasing something Gavi CEO Dr. Seth Berkley told her in a call earlier this month, offered a reminder that she has found herself returning to: “Vaccines in and of themselves do not save lives, it’s vaccination.”