What will Ottawa do with any leftover doses of the H1N1 vaccine: return them for money, or donate them to poorer countries?
Ottawa has a contract with GlaxoSmithKline to produce vaccine for the H1N1 virus. Until a few days ago, however, there was no concrete information available about the number of vaccine doses the federal government would order to make good on its promise to provide vaccine for all Canadians.
Last week, I published an [article](http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/how-much-vaccine-to-order-and-who-gets-it/article1242268/) in the *Globe and Mail* calling on the federal government to place an order for 68 million doses of vaccine. I explained that our current population is approximately 34 million and that effective vaccination would likely require two doses. I acknowledged that this strategy would guarantee a surplus of vaccine, because not every Canadian would need or want to be vaccinated, arguing that the surplus could be donated to poor countries that would not otherwise have access to sufficient vaccine.
Later that day, the federal government issued a press release making public for the first time its intention to order 50.4 million doses. Assuming two doses of vaccine per person, this would be enough for 75 per cent of the Canadian population. The government expects, however, that only 60 per cent of Canadians will want to be vaccinated. If this prediction is accurate, then there will be a surplus. And if there is a surplus, the government has said, it will want to cancel some of the order with GSK.
As my young son would say: “How cheap is that?”
The World Health Organization has asked pharmaceutical companies to donate at least 10 per cent of their vaccine production to poor countries (or, at the very least, to sell them the vaccine at lower cost). In response, GSK has promised to donate 20 per cent of production from its Canadian manufacturing facility to help meet the needs of some of the world’s most vulnerable populations. GSK will also have differential pricing for rich and poor countries.
WHO has also asked rich countries to donate a part of their vaccine stock. To date, the Canadian government has made no commitment to do so either independently or in partnership with the private sector.
Not to put too fine a point on it, our government’s failure to act is both foolish and shameful. It is foolish because viruses know nothing about political borders. Out of self-interest (if nothing else) we should be helping poor countries to vaccinate their citizens to minimize risk to ourselves from unprotected populations. It is shameful because the fortunate have a duty to help those who are less fortunate – a duty that, in our case, is all the more certain given our formal promise to provide poor countries with foreign aid.
In 1970, Canada and other UN member states made a commitment to increase official development assistance to poor nations. The target set for economically advanced countries such as Canada was a minimum of 0.7 per cent of gross national product by the middle of the decade. By 1975 Canada’s foreign aid contribution was at 0.53 per cent of GNP. Since then, that percentage has declined. Sadly, nearly forty years later, the stipulated minimum commitment has never been met. This fact is particularly shameful for Canada, as the very idea of officially targeting 0.7 per cent of GNP to international aid originated with us.
In 1968, at the request of the World Bank, our former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson chaired a commission tasked with assessing international development assistance. The Pearson Commission recommended, and the UN General Assembly later endorsed, the 0.7 per cent minimum.
The gap between what we owe and what we give to poor countries is huge. Donating surplus vaccine, whether this is a donation of 10 million or 20 million doses will hardly touch our moral or fiscal debt. It would, however, signal that we intend to pay more than lip service to the promise we made decades ago.