Rich countries only shared 14% of COVID-19 vaccine doses promised to poorer nations

The rate of vaccination in the poorest countries remains dismal, and rich countries such as Canada continue to fail in their promises to help. The following is an October 22 CBC Radio article. The original article can be found here. It was written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview with Brittany Lambert produced by Katie Geleff.

A coalition of human rights organizations lays the blame on pharmaceutical companies and rich countries like Canada for contributing to vaccine inequality around the world.

In a new report, the People's Vaccine Alliance — which includes Oxfam, ActionAid and Amnesty International — found that only one in seven COVID-19 vaccine doses promised to low-income countries were actually delivered.

The report found 261 million doses, or 14 per cent, of the 1.8 billion doses were delivered — and only 1.3 per cent of people in those countries are fully vaccinated.

"It just seems so wrong and so morally reprehensible to have huge swaths of the world unvaccinated just because they have less money," Brittany Lambert, policy lead on the vaccine inequality file for Oxfam Canada, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"And for those [pharmaceutical] companies to be able to, you know, continue prioritizing the wealthy countries that are going to pay lots of money for these vaccines... People in developing countries don't have any less right to life and to health than the rest of us."

Canada has delivered eight per cent of the 40 million doses it pledged, the report says, while the U.K. has delivered 9.6 per cent of the 100 million doses it promised. The U.S. has delivered 16 per cent of the 1.1 billion vaccines it pledged.

These countries pledged to share doses through COVAX, the United Nations' global vacine-sharing initiative.

Major vaccine developing companies, including AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Pfizer, pledged 994 million doses to COVAX, but so far only 12 per cent have been delivered, according to the report.

In many low-income countries, Lambert said that even frontline health-care workers aren't vaccinated yet. 

Between January and May this year, COVID-19 may have killed between 80,000 and 180,000 health-care staff around the world, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Across Africa, less than one in 10 health-care workers were fully vaccinated, compared to eight in 10 in wealthy countries, the report found.

WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told BBC News that health-care workers must be prioritized for vaccines and criticized the distribution of doses. 

To Lambert, this global vaccine inequality was "entirely avoidable."

"The consequences of this, obviously, is tons of needless deaths, the ongoing toll on economies and on people's livelihoods in countries that were already struggling with poverty to begin with," Lambert said.

This week's report, titled "A Dose of Reality," calls on G20 leaders to lift patents, share vaccine technology and let developing countries make their own vaccines. 

"The core of the problem is that there just aren't enough vaccines being made," Lambert said.

She says AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Pfizer have a monopoly over vaccine production and have refused to share their recipe with other manufacturers who could expand production.

But governments, she said, have a responsibility in an emergency situation like this one. She says countries should use their legal tools to force COVID-19 vaccine developing companies to share their knowledge and technology and waive intellectual property rights.

South Africa and India proposed this temporary waiver to the World Trade Organization last year. More than 100 countries, including the U.S., have backed the waiver since then, but a few, including the U.K. and Switzerland, are against it.

"Canada has been silent," Lambert said. "They haven't actively blocked it, but they haven't proactively endorsed it either…. I would urge Canada, you know, just to show global leadership."

International Development Minister Karina Gould told As It Happens in an emailed statement that "as a government, it is our priority to take care of our own citizens."

"By investing early into COVAX to respond not only to international needs but also our own needs, we contributed to building trust in the mechanism to deliver and reinforced the mechanism's purchasing power as a whole," the statement reads. 

"It is incorrect to imply that for some reason, we would be delaying the delivery of those surplus vaccine doses. We are committed to making them available as quickly as possible."

For people in Canada, COVID-19 vaccines have offered increased protection from the virus and, in some cases, the ability to return in-person to work, school and social gatherings.

But for Lambert, that does not mean things are back to normal.

"As long as the rest of the world isn't vaccinated, this pandemic will go on," she said. "It creates fertile ground for the virus to mutate.

"It's really in everybody's interest to vaccinate the world, as soon as possible, so that we can just move on once and for all from this pandemic."