Biden scores big with developing nations while Canada appears to be sitting on sidelines

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As long as a single country is offside, the waiver will not be a slam dunk.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on May 10, 2021.

The Canadian government could have been on the wrong side of the world vaccine issue.

By failing to immediately join the United States president in his call for an end to patent protection for coronavirus vaccines, Canada risked losing its globally positive reputation.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already signalled he may replace an initial tepid response with a strong endorsement of the plan by U.S. President Joe Biden to suspend patent rights during the pandemic. He should.

In most cases, governments have already participated financially in the development of these vaccines.

Parliament has already passed a resolution permitting the government to suspend patent rights during a pandemic.

The tools are there to move quickly in support of a World Trade Organization resolution proposed by India and South Africa and now supported by more than 100 countries.

It is quite possible that the nascent Biden administration kept allies in the dark regarding any intention to move on this motion.

Canada wasn’t the only country looking as though it was caught by surprise.

The European Union, and many countries there, had similar milquetoast responses to the statement issued last week by U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai.

The statement explained the change of heart because: “This is a global health crisis, and the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic call for extraordinary measures … in service of ending this pandemic, supports the waiver of those protections for vaccines.”

News reports say that the decision to proceed with the waiver was made on May 4 after weeks of internal debate, and representatives from the Commerce Department were not included in the final meeting.

With the announcement the following day, the usual outreach to like-minded countries did not gather a unanimous wave of support.

Germany came down hard on the proposal, while France offered tepid words of support.

While the American reversal was well-received around the world, the announcement promised discussion but there is no real deadline for completion.

The challenge of getting the exemption through the WTO is no small task because all resolutions are supposed to be determined by consensus.

As long as a single country is offside, the waiver will not be a slam dunk.

In the meantime, the current system will continue, with disproportionate vaccination in developed nations.

The second question not been fully answered is whether the waiver will actually ensure more global access to more vaccines, the reason behind the proposed patent waiver.

Vaccine manufacturers say the real issue is the production blockages and shortage of raw materials. They also claim that the waiver could dilute the safety and security of the vaccination rollout, encouraging fraudulent or inferior production methods.

The European Union has been promoting the idea of a liberalized licensing system with shared know-how and greater oversight.

Chances are this WTO patent waiver will take a least a year to implement, if ever.

Meanwhile the Biden administration has scored big with developing nations while Canada appears to be the fat cat sitting on the sidelines.

With the images of death and dying emanating from India, there is a huge humanitarian reason to be on the waiver side of this issue.

That, coupled with the number of expatriate Indo-Canadians fearing for their families’ lives, should be reason enough for the cabinet to come out strongly in support of the Biden initiative.

New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh has already accused the prime minister of putting drug company profits ahead of the pandemic.

He knows that Canadians will not take kindly to a leader who waffles on the issue of global access to vaccines.

The irony is that the United States has already used its own manufacturing capacity to secure vaccines for all its citizens before pivoting on the waiver issue.

The president knew that raising the ire of vaccine manufacturers would probably slow down his national rollout.

On the Canadian side, we currently have no international manufacturers. The only Canadian company that had begun the development process, Providence Therapeutics from Calgary, last week blamed lack of government support for a decision to leave the country.

Last month, Ontario and federal governments announced a vaccine package of 925 million with Sanofi, a French pharmaceutical giant. The plan envisions a new vaccine production facility in Toronto to open in 2027. The federal government contributed 415 million and Ontario added 55 million to the project.

Those jobs will likely be threatened by an open vaccine regime.

But the prime minister’s own job may be at risk if Canada flaunts the global consensus.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.