GAVIN FRIDELL & RYLAN HIGGINS • Guest Opinion
In the national news last week, we learned that Canada is unable to manufacture its own COVID-19 vaccines. This public health shortcoming could have significant negative impacts for Canadians by delaying access to vaccines when they are ready to be used.
Given Canada’s domestic situation, some readers might be surprised to know that the Trudeau government is teaming up with other wealthy countries to block low- and middle-income countries from developing their abilities to manufacture vaccines. This move also aims to stymie the capacity of these countries to produce diagnostics, tests, ventilators, and other drugs. This is a misguided and entirely unjust way of treating less powerful nations during an unprecedented pandemic.
Canadians and the federal government alike consider our country to be a benevolent leader in the world when it comes to human rights and global issues. Trudeau’s initiative on this front demonstrates a very different set of imperatives as it targets and works against progress in global public health. Specifically, Canada opposes the call led by South Africa and India for a waiver that would allow countries to bypass certain protections on intellectual property rights at the World Trade Organization (WTO).
If granted, the waiver could allow countries to make better and quicker use of new knowledge around vaccines, research and development, expediting the manufacture of needed medicines and equipment. It could be part of a wider global strategy to roll out treatments as quickly as possible, shortening the crisis, eliminating delays, and saving lives at risk.
The current struggle is not entirely novel. South Africa and India both have long histories of battling against unfair intellectual property protections. South Africa in particular led a global movement 20 years ago against the high costs of HIV drugs, due to patent monopolies, that left countless people to die. Intense political pressure weakened these monopolies, leading to cheaper, generic production that has saved millions of lives.
Today, Canada, and a group of wealthy countries, including the U.S. and the U.K., both of which can manufacture their own COVID medicines, have refused to support the waiver. Canada’s decision seems driven not by fairness, but rather by what international development scholars might call a “classic” development approach.
On the surface, such an approach can appear reasonable, but a closer look reveals both practical problems and ethical pitfalls. A hallmark of classic development is paternalism. While wealthy, more powerful countries appear generous, problematic relations of power persist and unfair arrangements remain, leaving low- and middle-income countries hampered.
With such observations in mind, we recognize that Canada has pledged around $245 million to the WHO to provide vaccines to low- and middle-income countries when ready. This is a substantial sum. At the same time, Canada has also pledged $220 million to the same fund for a vaccine for Canadians, in addition to committing over $1 billion for vaccines for Canadians outside of the fund.
When the first round of vaccines is ready, it is not clear how much will be left for poorer countries when wealthier ones snatch them up. Canada appears uninterested in actually changing the systems that could free up knowledge and resources for countries currently lacking both.
Despite its pledge to the WHO, Canada is at the same time blocking low- and middle-income countries from pursuing their own strategic manufacturing and trade strategies to provide COVID medicine and technology for themselves.
Canada understands the need to violate intellectual property rights in a time of crisis and national emergency, having granted itself the right to suspend patents and trade secrets to combat COVID through Bill C-13. Many poorer countries will be much more hesitant to unilaterally take the steps Canada has, fearing costly litigation at the WTO, which is why the waiver is so important.
Evidence has begun to emerge of the barriers posed by intellectual property protections to a fair and efficient response to the pandemic. As one example highlighted by Médecins sans frontières (MSF), in March in Italy, when a manufacturing company was unable to produce sufficient ventilator valves, two engineers reverse-engineered and produced them on a 3D printer. The printed valves cost around $2 to $3 each, compared to $11,000 charged by the manufacturer, and helped save many lives. Since then, the engineers have not been able to share the digital print due to possible legal and medical issues.
For this reason, organizations like MSF have led calls for governments in Europe and North America to support the South African and Indian-led waiver.
Supporting these calls, faculty members in International Development Studies at Saint Mary’s University, along with development specialist across the country, recently issued their own, urging the Canadian government to support the WTO waiver out of a vital necessity to address this global public health crisis in a manner which supports human dignity, fairness, and justice for all.
In reflecting on the limits of Canada being unable to manufacture its own vaccines, it might be time to reflect on why Canada would also block other countries from doing the same.
Gavin Fridell is Canada research chair and associate professor in International Development Studies at Saint Mary's University in Halifax. Rylan Higgins is a professor of anthropology, also at SMU.