Canada must stop vaccine obstruction, say religious orders

Administering a COVID-19 test during the global pandemic. While vaccines are rolling out in most developed nations, poor African nations are left wanting. (Photo by Confidence Nzewi, 123rf.com)

By Michael Swan, The Catholic Register 

[Toronto – Canadian Catholic News] – The Sisters of St. Joseph, the Oblates and the Jesuits have joined with a long list of churches, unions and humanitarian organizations to ask Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to get behind an exception to international patent laws that would allow companies and countries to quickly produce cheaper, generic versions of COVID-19 vaccines.

At World Trade Organization meetings in Geneva in December and again early in March, Canada stood in the way of a joint Indian-South African proposal for a TRIPS waiver (TRIPS stands for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights), which would allow countries and generic drug makers to produce generic versions of vaccines without fear of sanctions or lawsuits.

“Everyone everywhere needs out of this pandemic as quickly as possible. Canada must be part of the global effort to save lives — not an obstacle. We call on the Canadian government to support the waiver now,” said the March 10 letter from 38 organizations including the United Church of Canada and the ecumenical social justice organization Kairos.

Global Affairs Canada told The Catholic Register “Canada has not rejected the COVID-19-related TRIPS waiver proposal.” Canada has instead joined with Mexico and Chile in withholding its support until advocates for the proposal answer questions about “specific intellectual property-related barriers.”

The stance is just camouflage for obstruction, according to signatories to the letter.

“Vaccine technology and knowledge are being treated as private property by pharmaceutical corporations, despite much of this research being paid for by over $100 billion of taxpayers’ money,” the letter to Trudeau reads.

South of the Canada-US border, the Jesuits have mounted a full court press to get Washington to reverse its opposition to a TRIPS waiver.

“There is no reason to guarantee further monopoly rights to the companies,” Jesuit Fr. Ted Penton wrote in a letter to congressional representatives March 18.

“Intellectual property rights are an important way to encourage private companies to fund innovation, ensuring that they can reap the fruits of their own investments,” Penton wrote to all 435 members of Congress. “The development of COVID vaccines, however, has been largely funded by taxpayers, with governments pre-purchasing the vaccines from pharmaceutical companies with no guarantee that effective vaccines would be developed. Taxpayers took the risk and the companies have been paid.”

Penton’s letter to Congress comes on the heels of a Feb. 22 letter from the Jesuit Major Superiors of Africa and Madagascar to President Joe Biden.

“We are concerned that rich countries — including the United States — are hoarding most of the global vaccine supply while poor countries are left behind,” Fr. Agbonkhianmneghe Orobator wrote on behalf of Africa’s Jesuits. “Many global south nations may not start mass vaccinations until as late as 2024. We call on your office to stop the WTO’s role in enforcing this vast inequality.”
The African Jesuits point out that COVAX is not getting needles into arms, and that’s a danger for everyone.

In the United Kingdom, the Catholic organization CAFOD (Catholic Agency For Overseas Development) predicts the coronavirus will push 150 million people into extreme poverty, resulting in an additional 130 million left starving. CAFOD is pushing Prime Minister Boris Johnson to drop UK opposition to a TRIPS waiver.

Canada has put $940 million into the $9.4 billion COVAX fund that is supposed to ensure equal access to vaccines for poor and middle income countries.

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