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Canada offering help as COVAX vaccine alliance pleads for more cash

OTTAWA — Canada is considering sending more money or ancillary vaccine supplies to the COVAX global vaccine sharing alliance after a plea from the organizers that it was running out of cash.

OTTAWA — Canada is considering sending more money or ancillary vaccine supplies to the COVAX global vaccine sharing alliance after a plea from the organizers that it was running out of cash.

The promise to maybe do more comes as Canada hasn't sent any new doses to COVAX since Dec. 21, after pledging to deliver 50 million directly along with enough cash for 150 million more by the end of this year.

COVAX is short for COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access and was created in 2020 by the Gavi vaccine alliance, the World Health Organization and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, to share COVID-19 vaccine supplies equitably as they became available.

Wealthy countries like Canada bought into COVAX but also signed private contracts with vaccine makers, which undermined the COVAX plan and snatched up all early supplies of vaccines at the expense of vulnerable people in lower-income countries.

Globally more than 10 billion doses have now been administered, two-thirds of them in high and upper-middle income nations where more than seven in 10 people are considered fully vaccinated, and more than one in three now have a third dose.

In the 28 low-income countries, nine in 10 people don't even have access yet to a single dose.

"You cannot stop a virus in geographical phases, vaccinating in some parts of the world while leaving the protection of others until later," said Gavi CEO Seth Berkley on Twitter Monday.

COVAX celebrated delivering its one billionth dose in mid-January but the World Health Organization is aiming to get 70 per cent of all people vaccinated by the end of June, That will require upwards of 3.6 billion more doses in the next five months.

Berkley told a news conference earlier this month supplies are increasing and he thinks the goals are doable, but the part of the world that's already vaccinated has to remember doses don't just go into arms on their own.

They also require syringes, safety boxes, and funds to pay for transportation and insurance. Every country needing vaccines has some unique challenges to overcome and COVAX is trying to develop country-specific plans for all of them, which also takes funds.

Berkley said COVAX can't currently accept any more donations of vaccine doses directly without accompanying funding to cover those other costs.

A spokesman for International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan said in an email that Canada is investigating how it can help.

"Minister Sajjan will be in touch with Seth Berkley as well as his partners at COVAX in the coming days to determine what the needs are and how Canada can help support them," said Yentl Béliard-Joseph. "He has directed the department to look at what Canada can do in order to fill this gap.”

Canada is one of only four countries that already covers all the ancillary costs for vaccines it donates — only Belgium, New Zealand and Ireland also do this. 

As of Dec. 21, Canada had donated 12.6 million doses of vaccine from its own contracts, with 11.9 million of those via COVAX. The rest were through bilateral agreements with specific countries.

The doses are from Canada's contracts with Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson. Another 52 million doses of Novavax may become available for donation this year, as the vaccine maker is starting to see its vaccine approved, including by the WHO. 

Health Canada is still reviewing the application but for domestic use Canada is almost exclusively using vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna.

Canada also says the $545 million it donated to COVAX already bought 87 million doses, but COVAX has not confirmed that claim. A COVAX spokesman said it is still negotiating purchase agreements with vaccine suppliers.

Canada's claim is based on a United Kingdom formula, developed for last year's G7 leaders' summit, that found COVAX would on average pay $US6 a dose.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2022.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press