Kelti Cameron | CUPE National Services

Global pandemics are rare events. They do not happen often and are among few disasters that the entire world experiences simultaneously. It is astonishing to consider that 7.8 billion people have, in some way, been affected by COVID-19. We often hear ‘we’re all in this together’ and while we may be in this together, we are not all in the same boat. Some of us are in yachts while others are drowning – access to vaccines is one example of how we are living this pandemic differently.

To survive and to thrive in the future, we urgently need most of the global population vaccinated. Pandemic solutions must be based in solidarity, and vaccine distribution must be accessible and affordable. Wealthy nations, including Canada, are racing to secure their own supplies, instead of thinking and participating in a global plan. This race is driven by a handful of huge pharmaceutical corporations that control vaccine supply and stand to reap enormous profits from the pandemic.

Canada has secured the option to buy five times more vaccines than needed. The US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and the European Union have bought more than twice what they need. Pharmaceutical giants Moderna and Pfizer are expected to earn respectively around $10 billion and $19 billion from vaccine sales in 2021. Poorer countries, which make up 84 per cent of the global population, have only secured 32 per cent of the world’s vaccine supply.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) set up a global vaccine collaboration called COVAX (COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access), to keep vaccine prices low and ensure global, equitable access. The plan was for rich countries, including Canada, to pool funds and buy vaccines for themselves and poor countries. Distribution would have been collectively planned and equitably distributed, with all 190 nations enrolled getting enough affordable vaccines.

Tragically, rich countries are undermining COVAX by competing to access the limited global vaccine supply controlled by pharmaceutical companies. Countries representing just 16 per cent of the global population currently hold 60 per cent of the vaccines. Our reflex has been to secure a national supply of vaccines. 

India and South Africa, with the support of 99 other countries, mostly in the Global South, have proposed a waiver to the World Trade Organization (WTO) that would temporarily remove the monopoly rights of pharmaceutical corporations to COVID-19 vaccines. The control of vaccine production by big pharmaceutical corporations, is a barrier to scaled-up production and rapid access.

Shockingly, wealthy countries, including Canada, have opposed the waiver, choosing instead to protect the profits of multinational pharmaceutical corporations over the health of the world’s population. “Canada’s opposition to the adoption of the waiver is simply indefensible. It is contributing to deepening the global crises of inequality. This opposition is also “self-defeating,” said Sangeeta Shashikant of the Third World Network, in her letter to the Prime Minister. CUPE signed an open letter, supported by over 40 Canadian civil society organizations, that stated Canada must be part of the global effort to save lives and not an obstacle. CUPE called on the Canadian government to support the waiver now.

Currently, public funds for vaccine research and development, as well as spending on the actual vaccines, are subsidizing record private profits for Pfizer and Moderna. Meanwhile, poor countries that can’t access vaccines are now turning to the World Bank and private banks for loans to buy vaccines, plunging them further into debt. The false logic of the market and for-profit solutions are driving government actions to the detriment of the most vulnerable.

Without public capacity to produce medicine and vaccines, we are beholden to corporate for-profit interests to ensure our survival. This is a dangerous game, and the rules are rigged.

In the short term, we must change the rules and heed the calls of the Global South to support the WTO waiver. In the long term, we must change the game altogether and ensure public funding is used to support public production and access to medicine and vaccines, prioritizing public health and the public interest over profit.