The formula for ending the COVID-19 pandemic may not be easy, but it is simple, says Dr. Joanne Liu, a leading voice on medical humanitarian crises.
Liu is the only Canadian on the 13-member Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPPR), a body established in 2020 by the World Health Organization to analyze the global response to the pandemic and come up with recommendations. Liu spoke to the Montreal Gazette recently about errors the Canadian government has made and continues to make, and what needs to happen to end the pandemic as soon as possible.
“It all depends on how much we want to protect the rest of the world to avoid the emergence of new variants. It’s as simple as that,” said Liu, who co-ordinated medical aid in hot spots around the world as president of Doctors Without Borders from 2013 to 2019 and now teaches at McGill University’s School of Population and Global Health.
“We need to avoid the basic errors for any pandemic, which is claiming victory before it’s over. It’s not over until it’s over. We do it all the time because everybody is tired. It’s like running a marathon barefoot. But thinking we live in isolation and that travel bans and a third dose is good enough to pull us through … It’s not. We need to vaccinate the rest of the planet.”
In its latest report, the IPPPR co-chairs wrote, of a “vast immunization gulf between the richest and poorest countries of the world (that) jeopardizes the health of everyone on the planet.” Liu said she is “heartbroken” by the fact that her own country has not done enough to bridge that gulf.
“I just don’t understand why Canada is not doing more,” she said. “When I worked in crisis zones … and said I am from Canada, they would say. ‘Oh, you have a great prime minister.’ Why do people think we have such a great prime minister? … This is supposed to be the land of promise … (but) what we are doing with COVID is against our DNA. I am heartbroken by that. But I am not able to convince (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau to do what he has to do.”
According to Liu and other experts on the subject, Canada must share its surplus vaccine doses with poorer countries now, and support the lifting of patents on vaccines and diagnostic tests so that they can produce their own as soon as possible.
She noted that Canada — population 38 million — has reserved some 420 million doses of vaccines from various manufacturers, with the potential to add another 200 million. In Canada, more than 76 per cent of the population had been fully vaccinated by the end of 2021, with more than 64 million doses administered. Meanwhile, in countries like Malawi in Africa — population 19 million — only 1.6 million doses had been administered, which means only about three per cent of the population was doubly vaccinated.
Liu said Canada can and should, at the very least, immediately release the 60 million doses of AstraZeneca and Janssen vaccines that it has pre-ordered and donate them. Since AstraZeneca and Janssen “are not the favourite vaccines of Canadians … it would not be presumptuous to suggest we can divert them somewhere else.”
Liu said the Canadian government should tell the manufacturers of those vaccines — Oxford and Johnson & Johnson — to make plans now to send those vaccines directly to needier countries, so they have time to prepare. They need to launch awareness campaigns, train vaccinators and work out the logistics of distribution, including how to keep the vaccines cold.
“These are not esoteric considerations,” Liu said. Her nightmare is that countries like Canada will finally wake up to the need to donate more vaccines to poor countries too late, when the products are close to their expiration dates. This has already been happening.
Canada has committed to donating the equivalent of at least 200 million doses to COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX), a global initiative aimed at equitable access to vaccines, by the end of 2022. But Liu said that will be too late.
“This is happening now and we need to protect (people in poorer countries) now,” she said. “I’m afraid that in the second half of 2022, there will be too many vaccines (arriving) in low and middle-income countries and they won’t have the absorption capacity.”
Liu acknowledged that Canada was a role model initially, when it quickly made deals with several drug companies to ensure its own citizens would be protected and also invested $2.5 billion in the COVAX initiative. But she said Canada is not “optimizing its investments” by doing everything it can to ensure COVAX promises are kept.
She said she does not expect Canada to give up doses required for its citizens, or even booster doses, although she said those should be given only to the most vulnerable, for now.
“Trudeau has to respond to the needs of Canadian citizens. I understand that,” she said. “But he can incentivize pharmaceutical companies to do tech transfer and share knowledge of how to make vaccines and diagnostic tests. I am not asking them to waive patents forever, just temporarily for the time of the pandemic.”
Last spring, after U.S. President Joe Biden announced his administration would not block efforts to loosen patent protections on COVID products, Trudeau said only that Canada is “working for a solution that benefits everyone.”
Dozens of MPs from all parties, including some Liberals, have signed an open letter calling on the government to support the waiver initiative. This would speed up the production of vaccines in countries like South Africa by as much as six months.
The letter notes that Trudeau has repeatedly called for global solidarity, yet “Canada’s unwillingness to endorse a proposal by the World Trade Organization to make COVID-related vaccines, treatments and technologies more affordable and readily available for all countries is a glaring example of this mismatch between words and deeds.”
Liu said Canadians need to lobby their government. Travel bans, like the one Canada slapped on seven southern African countries after South Africa identified Omicron, are “ridiculous, theatrical gestures to make people believe you are being active,” she said.
“We need to make it a political issue if we want our government to move. People need to tell them we are tired of cycles of panic and hysteria and so we don’t want short-term solutions. We want a long-term solution. It’s a package. Yes, we need to protect the citizens of Canada, but Canada needs to do more to ensure the rest of the world is protected as well.”