A road safety officer distributes masks during a COVID-19 awareness campaign in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Jan. 19. While vaccines are rolling out in most developed nations, poor African nations are left wanting. CNS photo/Luc Gnago, Reuters

Bridging the great vaccine divide

By 
  • February 4, 2021

A small Canadian startup hopes to help to bridge the COVID-19 vaccine divide between rich and poor nations.

“I need to be blunt. The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure,” World Health Organization director general Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus told his executive board in a Jan. 18 address. “The price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries.”

While 49 high income countries have administered close to 40 million vaccine doses, most African countries have no doses and no prospect of significant vaccine distribution this year. It’s just not fair, Ghebreyesus said.

Vancouver-based Eyam Vaccines and Immunotherapeutics have an mRNA vaccine candidate going into animal trials in the next 30 to 45 days. The company believes it can complete the approval process before the end of this year. 

Eyam calls its bio-technology “a 3.0 version of the vaccine,” which can be quickly and cheaply manufactured, easily tweaked to adapt to mutations and scaled up for manufacture anywhere in the world.

“We believe our next generation vaccine platform is certainly part of an integral solution that merits support,” Eyam CEO Ryan Thomas told The Catholic Register in an e-mail.

Eyam first caught the attention of Catholics, and an investment from Vancouver Archbishop Michael Miller, because its vaccine technology has no connection with cell lines derived from voluntary abortions.

With more than 2.2 million deaths worldwide so far from COVID-19, the pressing moral question now is whether or not rich countries will use their scientific and financial muscle to protect the lives of poor people beyond their borders.

That kind of innovation can’t come fast enough for Africa, said Fr. Charlie Chilufya, co-ordinator of the Africa Task Force of the Vatican COVID-19 Commission. The moral obligation of rich nations is clear, he said.

“Medical care is a right defined in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” Chilufya wrote in an e-mail. “As the Holy Father has emphasized, health is not a privilege for some, but it is a right for everyone.”

It’s not a subtle moral question, said Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute executive director Moira McQueen.

“If we have five times more than we need, then for sure it’s a moral obligation,” she said.

Canada has signed contracts that secure a potential 414 million doses of vaccine, five times more than it needs for its population of about 38 million.

But it’s not just a moral problem. There’s a practical dimension to global vaccine coverage, said Chilufya. 

“This is not just a local problem, as we all know. It’s a public health problem of global proportions,” the Jesuit said. “If Africa or other countries of the global south remain unvaccinated, coronavirus will still remain a global threat.”

Canada’s answer has been massive support for the COVAX facility and GAVI, the global vaccine alliance that works with the United Nations and the WHO. Ottawa has put up $250 million to help COVAX buy COVID-19 vaccine doses for low and middle-income countries. Another $75 million was committed to support vaccine distribution and delivery. 

Meanwhile, Canada is also struggling to speed up the delivery within its own population. However, at least 80 million doses are committed for delivery this year and the government still plans to inoculate every Canadian who wants to be vaccinated by end of September.

“No one is safe until everyone is safe,” Global Affairs spokesperson Patricia Skinner told The Catholic Register. “COVID-19 poses a unique and truly global challenge
. … It is in our common interest to work together to defeat it.”

But rather than just dealing with the big established players in international development and health, Chilufya wishes countries and vaccine manufacturers would start talking directly to Catholic health care providers in Africa.

“In terms of distribution to poorer populations, an opportunity exists here,” he said. “Depending on the country, the Catholic Church and other faith-based groups sponsor and even directly operate anywhere from 30 to 60 per cent of health care on the continent. Northern governments, international governmental organizations and even local governments should enter into partnership with groups like the Catholic Church and other faith-based organizations with a vast array of health facilities in rural and peri-urban areas where local government health services are not available.”

Direct distribution agreements with faith-based health care would help ensure the poor aren’t at the back of the line, Chilufya said.

“Take advantage of the existing Church-run health facilities and networks and empower them so that more people, especially the poorer populations, are reached and fast enough,” he urged.

Part of the reason Catholic health care in Africa would be such an effective channel for vaccine delivery is that, unlike government hospitals, they’re not concentrated in the capital cities or dependent on political patronage. 

“Many ordinary Africans, especially rural Africans, trust these hospitals and clinics over government-sponsored institutions because they are more efficient,” Chilufya said.

Eyam is in talks with Health Canada, hoping to be part of a global solution.

“Eyam’s vaccine platform is really designed to respond to the specific challenges of a pandemic,” said Eyam CEO Thomas. “We aim to be able to scale our production in various parts of the world so as to better respond to the challenge of getting vaccines to remote areas. … The vaccination effort worldwide is one of global public health. It is our hope that international organizations and developed countries will step up to intervene just like in other catastrophes, like famines.”

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