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Canada must resist the urge to buy into vaccine nationalism

Updated: Mar 29, 2021

Opinion by Claire Borgaonkar

On September 25, Justin Trudeau announced that Canada would commit a combined $440 million to finance vaccine development and distribution through a global vaccine program called COVAX (1). An initiative spearheaded by the World Health Organization and supported by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, COVAX posits that equitable distribution of a vaccine, while supplies are limited, is key to mitigating the pandemic’s public health and economic consequences (2). It promises to ensure that vaccines, once developed, are made available to all participating nations, regardless of their ability to pay, and distributed to the world’s most at-risk populations. Canada’s decision to participate in COVAX ostensibly signifies a commitment to global cooperation in the race to end the most devastating pandemic of a generation.

But before it had signed on to this initiative, Canada had already negotiated its own deals with private companies to secure COVID-19 vaccines for Canadians. So far, Canada has struck agreements with five vaccine production companies to pre-order millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccine candidates (3). Other wealthy nations have also made advance purchases of vaccine candidates, including the U.S., U.K., and Germany (4).

Canada’s decision to pre-order vaccines for itself, while also signing on to a global equitable vaccine distribution initiative is inherently contradictory. Wealthy nations that negotiate private deals risk engaging in a phenomenon that experts are calling vaccine nationalism. Vaccine nationalism represents a “my nation first” approach to vaccine distribution where a country prioritizes the vaccination of its own citizens first and refuses to share doses with other nations (5). According to a report from Oxfam International, wealthy nations, representing just 13% of the world’s population, have already bought up over half of the future supply of leading vaccine contenders (6). Buying up a large share of limited stock crowds out smaller and poorer nations, possibly costing thousands of lives while supplies are being replenished.

Equitable access to life-saving vaccines has always been a global issue. During the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, wealthy nations pre-ordered millions of vaccines for themselves, only agreeing to share with developing nations after their own populations had been inoculated (7). Similarly, vaccines for smallpox and polio and drugs for HIV/AIDS were not made available to the developing world until developed nations had secured stock for their own use (8). These delays led to thousands of preventable deaths in the developing world. A similar trend in the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines would spell disaster for citizens in these nations.

The consequences will also be felt in wealthy nations if vaccine distribution is not carried out equitably. Unmitigated outbreaks in developing nations threaten supply chains and travel and damage global economic prospects. As well, many people in countries with access to a vaccine will be unable to receive one due to immune weakness or other vulnerabilities, making exposure to infected nationals from non-vaccinated countries potentially deadly. Without an equitable distribution plan, life will not return to normal for anyone anytime soon.

It is therefore vital that a successful vaccine be distributed to as many countries as possible upon first development, prioritizing those at highest risk of contracting the virus or reacting severely to it. To do this, Canada and other wealthy nations cannot afford to buy into vaccine nationalism. It comes down to a question of morals – will the developed world chooses to send vaccines to vulnerable populations in developing countries and spare thousands of lives there, or will it act in its own self-interest by hoarding all available stock? Canada has an opportunity to be a leader on this issue, and in the interest of Canadians and, indeed, the whole world, it really ought to take a stand.

  1. Kristy Kirkup, “Canada joins global effort on ensuring widespread access to COVID-19 vaccines”, Globe and Mail, 2020, covid-19-vaccine-program-and/

  2. Covax: Working for global equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines”, World Health Organization, 2020,

  3. “Government of Canada signs new agreements to secure additional vaccine candidate and treatment for COVID-19”, Government of Canada, 2020, procurement/news/2020/09/government-of-canada-signs-new-agreements-to-secure-additional-vaccine candidate-and-treatment-for-covid-19.html

  4. Beatrice Britneff, “U.S., Europe pre-order millions of COVID-19 vaccines doses. Why hasn’t Canada?”, Global News, 2020,

  5. Asaf Bitton, Mark L. Rosenberg, and Rebecca Weintraub, “The Danger of Vaccine Nationalism”, Harvard Business Review, 2020,

  6. “Small group of rich nations have bought up more than half the future supply of leading COVID-19 vaccine contenders”, Oxfam International, 2020, rich-nations-have-bought-more-half-future-supply-leading-covid-19

  7. Asaf Bitton, Mark L. Rosenberg, and Rebecca Weintraub, “The Danger of Vaccine Nationalism”, Harvard Business Review, 2020,

  8. David P. Fidler, “Vaccine nationalism’s politics”, Science 369, no. 6505 (2020): 749

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