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What is COVAX and why is Canada getting backlash for receiving vaccines from it?

Amid a massive immunization effort, the Canadian government is finding itself on the defensive for its decision to receive COVID-19 vaccines from the global initiative known as COVAX.

Canada will receive 1.9 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine — pending regulatory approval — from the program by the end of June, according to an update released by COVAX on Wednesday on the first phase of its vaccine delivery. Federal opposition leaders decried it as an embarrassment and “the wrong decision” by the government.

In light of the controversy, here’s what you need to know about what COVAX is, who is involved and how Canada factors in. 

What is COVAX?

COVAX is a global vaccine-sharing initiative jointly co-ordinated by the World Health Organization, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance.

According to the WHO website, the goal of COVAX is “to accelerate the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines, and to guarantee fair and equitable access for every country in the world.”

It was launched in April 2020, in response to the pandemic, as part of a four-pronged effort by WHO and partners to support global efforts to fight the disease. (In addition to vaccines, the other three pillars of that effort are diagnostics, treatment and health-system strengthening).

How does it work?

The program pools funds from wealthier countries that are used not only to buy vaccines for those countries but also to ensure low- and middle-income countries have access.

According to the Gavi website, higher-income, “self-financing” countries pay into the procurement platform of COVAX, to place vaccine orders for their own populations, as part of a financial mechanism known as Advance Market Committment (AMC).

“Upfront payments on these orders will help [COVAX] ensure that manufacturing is ramped up before vaccines have been approved, not after,” Gavi’s website states.

Once vaccines are approved by WHO, AMC funds will then pay for the purchase of vaccines for lower-income countries. So, the participation of wealthier countries is part of the program’s design.

COVAX has agreements with multiple vaccine-makers to buy about two billion doses this year, which will be distributed among the member nations to vaccinate up to one-fifth of each country’s population. Under the program, half of the two billion doses would go to lower-income countries.

virus outbreak britain
A pharmacist gives a woman the AstraZeneca vaccine in London, England, on Thursday. Health Canada regulators have not yet approved the AstraZeneca vaccine but a decision is expected in the next couple of weeks. (Yui Mok/PA/The Associated Press)

Who’s in on it?

More than 180 countries are involved in COVAX, including Canada, Brazil, Australia, the United Kingdom, Israel, Turkey and China. The European Commission, on behalf of 27 EU member states plus Norway and Iceland, has also joined as “Team Europe.”

Among them, 92 are low- and middle-income countries that are eligible to have their participation supported by the COVAX AMC. They include India, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Turkey, Indonesia, Vietnam, North Korea and Afghanistan.

The United States and Russia are among the countries who have not joined, opting to sign their own supply deals.

What is Canada’s role?

The federal government bought into COVAX with $440 million in September, half of which secured doses for Canadians, and the other half to help buy doses for the 92 countries who need help to buy vaccines. 

In announcing funding for the initiative, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada intended to draw on the COVAX supply to bolster the vaccination campaign at home.

Canada has also ordered 20 million doses directly from AstraZeneca, independently from COVAX.

What’s the controversy?

Federal opposition leaders are pointing out that Canada is the only G7 country slated to draw from COVAX’s vaccine supply in the program’s first allotment. A few other wealthy countries, including New Zealand and Singapore, are also part of the first allotment, but the vast majority are lower-income countries.

Green Party Leader Annamie Paul said Canada’s reliance on the program for additional doses harms the country’s international reputation. She also said Canada’s move to take doses from COVAX could prolong transmission of the virus elsewhere and allow more variants to arise.

“This is the wrong decision, this is the wrong time to make this decision,” she said. “We are asking for the government to either rescind this decision, or alternatively make up for whatever doses it has taken out by returning them to the COVAX facility so that our international neighbours can enjoy the same protection we do.”

WATCH | NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh criticizes COVAX decision:

During question period, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland defended the Liberal government’s decision to tap into COVAX vaccine supply. 1:06

Meanwhile, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said Canada would not be facing this dilemma if he were prime minister.

“We would not be in this position today because last year I was asking for independence on everything from PPE to vaccine manufacturing,” he said. “We should not be drawing away from poorer countries — we should be having the capacity here.”

How has the government responded?

In an interview with Power & Politics, International Development Minister Karina Gould defended the government’s decision, saying COVAX was part of the country’s wide-ranging vaccine portfolio “from the beginning.”

“Our top priority is to ensure that Canadians have access to vaccines,” Gould said. “COVAX’s objective is to provide vaccines for 20 per cent of the populations of all member states, both self-financing and those who will receive donations.”

WATCH | Minister defends Canada drawing on COVAX vaccine supply:

International Development Minister Karina Gould says Canada’s supply of vaccines from the COVAX facility is part of the country’s wide-ranging diverse portfolio. She says the government’s focus remains on vaccinating Canadians who want to get vaccinated. 1:49

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland echoed Gould’s comments during Thursday’s question period, saying COVAX was always part of Canada’s procurement strategy and “the COVAX mechanism is working precisely as designed.”

“We’ve been clear from the start: No one will be safe until everyone is,” she said. “We’re focused on getting Canadians vaccinated while making sure the rest of the world is vaccinated too.”

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