Canada donated over three-quarters of a million doses of its surplus AstraZeneca vaccines to Caribbean and South American countries over the last 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 to be safe and effective, most Canadians now receive one of the mRNA vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization said last May that the mRNA vaccines were “preferable” because of the risk of rare, but serious, blood clots in some AstraZeneca recipients.
That left Canada with a significant inventory provinces were no longer using.
International Development Minister Karina Gould’s office says 762,080 AstraZeneca doses were delivered to six countries late this summer.
These donations were bilateral agreements, separate from Canada’s participation in the COVAX global vaccine-sharing initiative.
All but the first shipment of donated doses happened after the start of the writ period for the federal election campaign, when the government was in “caretaker” mode. Because vaccine doses expire over time, the urgent work of trying to ensure Canada’s inventory does not go to waste continued 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 funding Chinese vaccine deliveries
Separate from these bilateral donations, Canada also has agreed to donate 40 million doses to developing countries through COVAX.
So far, 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 supplied by manufacturers of the AstraZeneca formulation. Because of ongoing international supply shortages, however, COVAX also offers countries the option of receiving Sinopharm, a Chinese vaccine approved by the WHO for emergency use last May.
Over the past two weeks, for example, Canada’s financial support to COVAX has helped to fund Sinopharm deliveries to Nicaragua and Zimbabwe.
Sinopharm is not approved for use in Canada. International travellers who received vaccines not certified for use by Health Canada are not considered fully vaccinated by the federal government.
B.C. handing back Moderna doses
At her regular briefing Tuesday, British Columbia’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Bonnie Henry said that her province was preparing to return to the federal government 300,000 “mostly Moderna” doses it will not use.
“These vaccines are not required at this time right now in B.C. and we still have a large number of vaccines that are 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’s incredibly important for people around the world to be protected from the virus.
“That’s the only way that we will get out of this global pandemic, and it’s important that we do our part to support that as well,” she said. “We are proud that we are doing that in B.C.”
The federal government is still consulting with provinces to find out how many doses they may have sitting spare in their inventories. While some of these doses may be distributed through COVAX, as Henry suggested, others may be donated through bilateral agreements like the recent AstraZeneca shipments.
The AstraZeneca vaccine was widely used across Canada in the spring, but most Canadians are now inoculated with mRNA vaccines, such as those made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. (Ben Nelms/CBC)
Contracts partially disclosed by the federal government last June left it unclear whether Canada would be allowed to donate doses of Moderna or Pfizer the way it could with other vaccines it had contracted to purchase.
Agreements to donate mRNA doses would have to be negotiated in consultation with the companies that supplied them.
The recipient countries must also be capable of assuming the strict transportation and cold storage requirements for these vaccines, something that could be a challenge in parts of the developing world.
Global inequities persist
The World Health Organization released a new strategy Thursday to vaccinate 40 per cent of the population of every country by the end of this year, and 70 per cent by mid-2022.
The WHO failed to meet its earlier target of vaccinating 10 per cent of the population in every country, economy and territory by the end of September. Fifty-six countries did not meet that mark.
“Science has played its part by delivering powerful, life-saving tools faster than for any outbreak in history,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “But the concentration of those tools in the hands of a few countries and companies has led to a global catastrophe, with the rich protected while the poor remain exposed to a deadly virus.”
While countries in the developing world continue to struggle to access and pay for COVID-19 vaccines, estimates compiled by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) suggest Western democracies could be holding over 870 million excess doses by the end of this year.
In Canada’s case, MSF estimated its excess could exceed 60 million doses, although the federal government may not be taking delivery of all the doses available through its advance purchase agreements.
Scientists have warned for months that COVID-19 variants can develop in unvaccinated populations. While existing vaccines provide effective protection from many of the variants that have emerged so far, that may not always be the case.