CNS photo/Dado Ruvic, Reuters

Cathy Majtenyi: ‘Me first’ is no way to deal with vaccine

  • January 28, 2021

The message was “blunt,” as he intended it to be: “The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure … and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries.”

World Health Organization (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus issued this clarion call to urge manufacturers and governments not to take what he called a “me-first” approach in the production and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

In a Jan. 18 speech, Tedros noted that while 39 million doses had been dispensed in 49 higher-income countries, “just 25 doses have been given in one lowest income country. Not 25 million; not 25,000; just 25.”

To put it into perspective, Canada has agreements with two suppliers: Moderna for 40 million doses and Pfizer for up to 76 million doses, with five additional agreements pending approval, at a cost of $1 billion according to Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC).

A Jan. 19 Canadian Press report notes that “Canada’s pre-purchase agreements for nearly 400 million doses would give it enough to cover the entire population five times over.”

When the government had announced these two agreements last August, Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand lauded Canada’s “aggressive approach” to ensure “that Canadians are at the front of the line when a vaccine becomes available.”

It is this “front-of-the-line” approach that has Tedros and other international development leaders so concerned. Tedros said wealthy countries had made 44 direct deals with manufacturers in 2020 and at least 12 so far in 2021. Such deals drive up prices and result in the hoarding of world supplies.

Tedros doesn’t begrudge Canada or any other country wanting to protect their citizens from COVID-19 infection, starting with the most vulnerable and at-risk.

For instance, the Canadian government’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout plan prioritizes older adults, residents and staff of institutions providing care for seniors, health-care workers who have direct contact with patients and adults living in Indigenous communities.

Tedros is arguing the same approach should be taken at the global level: “It’s not right that younger, healthier adults in rich countries are vaccinated before health workers and older people in poorer countries.”

To ensure that vulnerable people in lower-income countries get fair access to COVID vaccines, the WHO created COVAX, which is part of a larger project, the Access to COVID Tools (ACT)-Accelerator partnership. Canada has contributed $865 million since February 2020 to partners of the ACT-Accelerator for COVID-19 medicines, treatments and vaccinations.

COVAX is a platform supporting the research, development and manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines and negotiates their pricing. The initiative has made agreements with five manufacturers to produce two billion vaccine doses.

Each participating country will receive vaccines to immunize 20 per cent of its population by the end of 2021. Once all countries have that amount, wealthier, “self-financing” countries can get more doses depending on how much they pay into the platform.

The aim is to ensure “that the 92 middle- and lower-income countries that cannot fully afford to pay for COVID-19 vaccines themselves get equal access to COVID-19 vaccines as higher-income self-financing countries and at the same time,” says the website.

Although most high-income countries are participating in COVAX, their side deals result in manufacturers seeking regulatory approvals in those countries “rather than submitting full dossiers to WHO,” Tedros said.

This is borne out by a Dec. 8, 2020 report by the human rights watchdog Amnesty International, which says that 13 per cent of the world’s population has already purchased more than half of future vaccines.

“As of November 2020, more than 80 per cent of the planned 2021 supply of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna’s vaccines have already been sold to rich countries,” says the report.

Vaccines are the safest way to achieve the so-called “herd immunity” needed to halt virus transmission; in COVID’s case, up to 70 per cent of a population need to have this immunity, says the WHO.

If wealthy countries hoard vaccines, and if a co-ordinated approach such as what is offered through COVAX falls through, the world won’t achieve the herd immunity needed to end the COVID-19 pandemic, which the WHO says represent losses to the global economy of $375 billion (U.S.) each month.

“Front of the line” and “me first” have no place in a world in which our survival is deeply integrated with the health and well-being of the collective whole.

Last August, Pope Francis warned against the “me-first” approach of the wealthy getting priority access to the vaccine, and that “we must treat a great virus, that of social injustice, of inequality of opportunity, of being marginalized and of lack of protection of the weakest.”

(Majtenyi is a public relations officer who specializes in research communications at an Ontario university.)

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