President Joe Biden speaks at Tidewater Community College, Monday, May 3, 2021, in Portsmouth, Va. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Evan Vucci

Canada needs more help with COVID-19, prominent U.S. vaccine expert urges White House

WASHINGTON — A prominent Texas doctor says the United States has a moral obligation to help get more Canadians get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Dr. Peter Hotez, a vaccine expert and a familiar face to cable news viewers in both countries, says the U.S. has more than enough capacity to expand its largely successful vaccination efforts beyond its borders, including in Canada.

In an interview Monday with The Canadian Press, Hotez said he had assumed — like a lot of Americans — that Canada had essentially been keeping pace with the U.S. in terms of getting its citizens the protection they need.

Then he looked at the numbers.

“I was really astonished — only about a third of the country has received a single dose, and essentially no one’s gotten fully vaccinated,” said Hotez, who is dean of the school of tropical medicine at Baylor University in Houston.

“I can’t believe the U.S. is not out there helping, given that the amount of doses we would have to provide is relatively modest … (and) oblivious to the fact that it’s in our own enlightened self-interest to do it.”

Hotez called it “ridiculous” to think that transmission of the virus would be stopped by vaccinating Detroit without vaccinating Windsor, Ont., which is just across the Ambassador Bridge on the other side of the Detroit River.

And Canada’s roughly 38 million people represent a fraction of the 332 million people in the U.S., a “rounding error” in terms of the number of vaccine doses it would require, he added.

“The point is, there are emotional reasons to do it and pragmatic reasons to do it.”

Canada, however, is not the only country that needs help.

Mexico, which also shares a U.S. border, is doing significantly worse than Canada at vaccinating its 130 million residents. And the searing tragedy of a fresh wave in India, along with mounting worry about Brazil, is putting the White House under increasing pressure to do more.

A growing chorus of international voices, including progressive lawmakers in the U.S., is calling on President Joe Biden to agree to a proposal before the World Trade Organization that would ease patent and intellectual property protections, allowing developing countries to accelerate their own vaccine-manufacturing efforts.

The powerful American pharmaceutical industry is opposed to such a move, fearing an existential threat to a profitable business model.

“We are at war with the virus, and yet what we are seeing is war profiteering; we’re seeing that profits are being put over people,” U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, told a panel discussion Tuesday.

“The World Health Organization has said that there’s been a billion vaccine doses distributed, but just 0.3 per cent of those doses have gone to poor and developing countries. And that is just totally unacceptable.”

Schakowsky and others are backing a bid by India and South Africa for a waiver to a 27-year-old WTO agreement that essentially protects pharmaceutical trade secrets, a movement that has been gradually gaining steam in recent weeks.

Brajendra Navnit, India’s ambassador to the WTO, made an impassioned plea Tuesday for the so-called TRIPS waiver, insisting that the financial cost of sharing the information would be recovered tenfold in the resulting economic recovery.

“Anyone thinking India’s example has shown that … we are saved by vaccinating their own population, it is not going to happen,” Navnit said.

“We have seen that in measles, we have seen that in smallpox, we have seen recently in polio that only when you do global immunization, only then can you get rid of the virus.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged the no-one-is-safe-until-everyone-is-safe argument Tuesday but stopped short of saying whether Canada would vote to support the waiver proposal.

“I know the conversations around patent protections are ongoing and Canada is actively participating in them,” Trudeau said.

“We understand how important it is to get vaccines to the most vulnerable around the world, and we will keep working for that.”

Biden promised during the election campaign that the U.S. would share its vaccine manufacturing know-how, but has yet to make good on that promise, critics say.

U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai appeared to suggest Tuesday that the issue is very much on her mind.

“We are making real strides towards ending the pandemic, but I know we still have a lot of work ahead,” Tai said in prepared remarks to the Washington Conference of the Americas.

“That includes making the vaccine widely available and addressing global inequity. This is not just a public health requirement. Our economic recovery depends on it.”

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