Green Party Leader Annamie Paul says it is a low moment for Canada to be accepting COVID-19 vaccines from a global initiative largely meant to help poorer countries.
At a virtual press conference Thursday, Paul criticized the Liberal government for accessing doses from the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) Facility, a multi-nation, vaccine-sharing alliance that pools funds from wealthier countries to buy vaccines for themselves and for 92 low- and middle-income countries.
The move comes amid delivery delays of vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna linked to production issues. Canada is expecting to receive at least 1.9 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which is not yet approved by Health Canada, from the program.
While other wealthy countries involved in COVAX have the same option, Paul said “having an option doesn’t make it right.”
Watch: Domestic vaccine supply to supplement international deals, Trudeau says
The Green Party leader said the decision hurts Canada’s global standing at a time when the country has already been criticized for having used its wealth to “corner the market” on vaccines.
Liberals have boasted about inking contracts with seven different vaccine suppliers, and have said 40 million doses each from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna will be enough to vaccinate every Canadian who wants one by the end of September.
Expected Health Canada approvals of vaccines from Johnson & Johnson, Novavax, and AstraZeneca will also mean more than 80 million additional doses. The government has said extra vaccines will be donated to poorer countries through COVAX.
“We’ve got enough vaccines to vaccinate our population many times over,” Paul said. “We should not be double-dipping into this mechanism. It’s very bad for Canadians, it’s very bad for our image.”
Paul said the move does not help Canada look like a respectful global citizen and said that if the government is drawing from the COVAX supply because of a “poorly planned” vaccine strategy, it should say as much.
“People in Canada do not want this kind of decision made in their name,” she said.
At an earlier press conference in Ottawa, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole also blasted the Liberal government for the COVAX development.
O’Toole said the move shows Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is scrambling because of his government’s “failure” to deliver enough COVID-19 vaccines that are needed to reopen the economy.
“The very fact that Canada is the only G7 country asking the COVAX consortium for vaccines is demonstration that we have no plan,” O’Toole said.
Media reports in the fall stated at least four members of the G7 — France, Germany, Italy, and the U.S. — have not signed deals to procure domestic supply from the COVAX program.
But whatever the optics of Canada tapping into COVAX vaccines, it was always part of the government’s plan to have the option to secure doses from the program.
In September, the government committed $440 million to COVAX, with half directed to the effort to buy vaccines for poorer countries and the other $220 million to secure up to 15 million doses for Canada.
Trudeau told reporters at the time the COVAX program allows countries “who have the means,” including Canada, to buy doses for themselves and “match that with purchasing the same amount of doses for other countries around the world who don’t have the ability to pay full price for those potential vaccines.”
Other developed countries, including South Korea and New Zealand, are also accessing doses through the COVAX facility.
When asked by reporters Thursday if he would accept the COVAX vaccines if he were prime minister, O’Toole wouldn’t say.
Liberals defend COVAX decision
“It’s hard for me to divorce the inaction of the government over the last 10 months with what I would do today. We would not be in this position today,” he said, adding he has long pushed for Canada’s “independence” on securing personal protective equipment and vaccine manufacturing.
Pressed again on whether or not he’d accept COVAX doses, O’Toole suggested he couldn’t give an answer because the government hasn’t publicly released details of Canada’s contracts with vaccine makers.
“Why the lack of transparency? The very fact that you have to go to COVAX and draw away from a consortium that was intended for global balance with respect to immunizations shows there is no plan,” O’Toole said. “I would like that transparency first.”
NDP health critic Don Davies pressed the innovation and procurement ministers during a House of Commons committee meeting Thursday. Davies asked if it is “morally defensible” for Canada to take vaccines from poor countries.
Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand said there are good motivations driving the global vaccine purchasing and sharing program.
“The intention behind COVAX, in order to bring countries together to form this multilateral, pooled, procurement mechanism was to ask countries to supply certain funding for their own procurements and then to also ask them to provide funding for the developing world.”
Canada has signed deals to secure up to 429 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines and vaccine candidates. The federal government has touted its vaccine portfolio as “the most diversified” one in the world.
Anand told committee members that imports are needed because every vaccine manufacturer that the government signed a deal with over the summer was asked if they could make their products in Canada and each company said no.
The opportunity to acquire vaccines through the COVAX facilities had been on federal officials’ radar before Trudeau formally announced in late September that Canada would be joining it.
During a July 28 briefing, Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam stressed at the time that Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine task force would need to consider “a very broad range of approaches” including “collaboration with the international constructs like the COVAX initiative” to ensure access to international vaccine candidates.
Anand also told reporters on Sept. 25 that any vaccines Canada could receive through the COVAX facility would be in addition to the existing portfolio of signed deals for vaccine candidates.
“By supporting COVAX, we are continuing to diversify our investment in potential supply and we are committing to assist low-income countries,” she said at the time.
International Development Minister Karina Gould also defended the decision in an interview with CTV’s “Power Play” Wednesday. Gould said that COVAX was “always part” of the government of Canada’s procurement strategy.
“It shows that the mechanism is working because it has procured doses for both self-financing countries and those that are going to receive them through donations,” she said.
Watch the interview from CTV:
Gould denied it was a moral failure for a country such as Canada to tap the program when it can afford private vaccine contracts, noting the government committed the same amount to support access for lower-income countries as it did to secure its own doses.
“We’re also doing our part to support the developing world,” she said.
The COVAX Facility is coordinated by the World Health Organization, Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.
With files from The Canadian Press, Zi-Ann Lum, Althia Raj
CLARIFICATION - February, 4, 2021: This story was updated to note that not all members of the G7 are participating in the COVAX program.