Canada donated over three-quarters of a million doses of its AstraZeneca profits vaccines to Caribbean and South American countries over the past two months, and plans to donate more doses from its stockpile of mRNA vaccines in the coming weeks.
While Health Canada found the AstraZeneca vaccine safe and effective, most Canadians now receive one of the mRNA vaccines manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization said in May last year that mRNA vaccines were “preferable” because of the risk of rare, but severe, blood clots in some AstraZeneca recipients.
That left Canada with a significant inventory that the provinces no longer used.
International Development Minister Karina Gould’s office says 762,080 AstraZeneca doses were delivered to six countries by the end of the summer.
These donations were bilateral agreements, separate from Canada’s participation in COVAX’s Global Vaccine Sharing Initiative.
Everything except the first shipment of donated doses happened after the start of the writing period for the federal election campaign when the government was in “caretaker” mode. Because vaccine doses expire over time, urgent work continues to try to ensure Canada’s inventory is not wasted during the caretaker period.
Canada signed agreements with suppliers to purchase up to 22 million doses of AstraZeneca, but just over 3 million were delivered and distributed across Canada for use in provincial and territorial vaccination campaigns.
COVAX donations fund Chinese vaccination supplies
Separate from these bilateral donations, Canada has also agreed to donate 40 million doses to developing countries through COVAX.
To date, 2.7 million of these doses have been delivered to countries in Africa, Central and South America.
Many of the COVAX deliveries to date have been provided by manufacturers of the AstraZeneca formulation. However, due to the ongoing international shortage of supplies, COVAX also offers countries the opportunity to receive Sinopharm, a Chinese vaccine approved by the WHO for emergencies in May last year.
Over the past two weeks, Canada’s financial support for COVAX has e.g. Co-financed Sinopharm deliveries to Nicaragua and Zimbabwe.
Sinopharm is not approved for use in Canada. International travelers who have received vaccines that are not certified for use by Health Canada are not considered fully vaccinated by the federal government.
BC delivers Modern doses
At her regular briefing Tuesday, British Columbia’s chief medical officer, Bonnie Henry, said her province was preparing to return to the federal government 300,000 “mostly Modern” doses it would not use.
“These vaccines are not required at present in BC and we still have a large number of vaccines available to meet our needs over the next few months,” she said. “These vaccines will be part of the Canadian donation to the COVAX initiative.”
Henry said it is incredibly important for people around the world to be protected from the virus.
“It’s the only way we can get out of this global pandemic, and it’s important that we do our part to support it,” she said. “We are proud to be doing it in BC”
The federal government is still consulting with provinces to find out how many doses they can have left over in their holdings. While some of these doses can be distributed via COVAX, as Henry suggested, others can be donated through bilateral agreements such as the latest AstraZeneca shipments.
Contracts partially revealed by the federal government in June last year, it became unclear whether Canada would be allowed to donate doses of Moderna or Pfizer, as it could with other vaccines it had contracted to buy.
Agreements to donate mRNA doses were to be negotiated in consultation with the companies that supplied them.
The recipient countries must also be able to accept the strict requirements for transport and cold storage for these vaccines, which can be a challenge in parts of the developing countries.
Global inequalities persist
World Health Organization released a new strategy Thursday to vaccinate 40 percent of the population in each country by the end of this year and 70 percent by mid-2022.
The WHO failed to achieve its previous goal of vaccinating 10 percent of the population in each country, economy and territory by the end of September. 56 countries did not meet this mark.
“Science has played its part in delivering powerful, life-saving tools faster than any outbreak in history,” said WHO Director – General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “But the concentration of these tools in the hands of a few countries and companies has led to a global catastrophe in which the rich are protected while the poor remain exposed to a deadly virus.”
While developing countries continue to struggle to access and pay for COVID-19 vaccines, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) estimates that Western democracies could hold over 870 million overdoses by the end of this year.
In the case of Canada, Médecins Sans Frontières estimated that its profits could exceed 60 million doses, although the federal government may not make all the available doses available through its prior purchase agreements.
Researchers have been warning for several months that COVID-19 variants can develop in unvaccinated populations. Although existing vaccines provide effective protection against many of the variants that have emerged so far, this may not always be the case.