A Toronto academic physician said he refused his first offer of a COVID-19 booster shot to raise awareness about the vaccine inequity around the world, but has changed his tune with the emergence of the Omicron variant.
Dr. Russ Upshur is a professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the Dalai Lama School of Public Health. He has also been a part of several working groups during the COVID-19 pandemic including the co-chair of the WHO Ethics working group and the WHO Access to COVID-19 tools (ACT) accelerator groups.
Dr. Upshur tells CityNews when he was originally offered his third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, he refused. In a tweet, he said he would be declining the vaccine until Canada fulfills their pledges to COVAX as “millions of health professionals and at-risk, populations are waiting on their first dose.”
He said he first sent out the tweet about refusing his booster shot prior to the emergence of the Omicron variant. Dr. Upshur says now if it’s required of him to get a third dose to stem the tide of Omicron, he would.
“At every step, the virus has caused us to think and rethink about what we know to be true about. So if it becomes evident that a booster is required, in order to stem the tide of Omicron variant, then of course, yes, I will gladly happily and be first in line,” Dr. Upshur said.
With the Omicron variant now circulating, getting the rest of the world vaccinated is key to ending the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Upshur said it is places like South Africa where the vaccination rate is low and the virus is still circulating is where these variants are able to develop. South Africa’s fully vaccinated rate is just under 30 percent.
“Pan in pandemic means the entire world and as the Director-General of the World Health Organization has said repeatedly we’re not safe until everyone’s safe,” explained Dr. Upshur.
According to the United Nations Global Dashboard for Vaccine Equity, in high-income countries, one in every two people is vaccinated against COVID-19. In low-income countries, the number is one in 12 people.
“I don’t think it takes a genius to figure out that there’s something wrong with that scenario. If it’s within our power to help rectify that situation, then that should be our first priority,” said Dr. Upshur.
Global Affairs Canada tells CityNews a total of 8.375 million doses of vaccines have been donated across the world through COVAX from Canada. The federal government has committed to donating 200 million by the end of 2022.
There have been also 762,000 does of AstraZeneca donated through bi-lateral agreements with five different countries as well.
Dr. Upshur said while he would give Canada an “A” for their commitments to the COVAX program, he would give them a “D” for their delivery so far and hopes to see an uptick in deliveries made in 2022.
He said there are multiple ways an individual can help combat this vaccine inequity, including keeping the government accountable for its pledges or donating to organizations like UNICEF Canada who have organized the “Get-a-Vax, Give-a-Vax” campaign.
CEO of UNICEF Canada David Morely said the idea for this campaign came about to allow individual Canadians to get involved in the global vaccination effort.
So far, they have been able to distribute one billion vaccines around the world and hope to reach two billion in the first few months of 2022.
“That will mean that in 92 lower-income countries, they will have been able to vaccinate 20 percent of the population, the most vulnerable healthcare workers, social workers, teachers, the people who are providing the frontline services,” said Morely.
Canadians have so far donated over $9.6 million towards UNICEF’s global vaccine initiative, helping to vaccinate nearly four million people in low-income countries.
He said it has been frustrating to see some countries giving out boosters while others have are not even able to provide first shots, but adds it doesn’t have to be either-or.
“We’re now at the point where production is where we can have both boosters here in Canada and more vaccines overseas. That’s a big part of our Give-a-Vax campaign,” said Morely. “Because we want to say to Canadians, heck, even as they’re getting their boosters or as kids are getting their shots, ‘I’ve got extra protection now. I’m going to make a donation to give our backs and that means that I know that people in lower-income countries will be able to get their vaccinations too’.”
Morely adds it isn’t just the inventory needed to vaccinate people in lower-income countries, they also need financial support to be able to distribute them as well.
“There’s a whole network and groundwork that we have to lay. It’s not just the vial of the vaccine, it means we have to get syringes and we have to have safety boxes in and have enough of the personal protective equipment for the frontline workers,” said Morely. “We are working also with countries to make sure that they’ve got the right cold chain to keep the vaccines cold enough.”
The Global Dashboard for Vaccine Equity says a high-income country only has to increase their health spending by less than one percent to vaccinate their population, while low-income countries have to increase their spending by over 56 percent.
Dr. Upshur explains if you are someone who just wants things to go back to normal, it’s in everyone’s best interest to want the entire globe vaccinated.
“It’s not about your empathy, but your well-being is actually tied to our capacity to manage this globally. A pandemic is one of those circumstances where self-interest and community interest actually coincide,” said Dr. Upshur.
“You know what they say on a plane, if you’ve got to put the oxygen mask on you first, we’ve had the oxygen mask on for a while in Canada.”
Dr. Upshur said vaccines are just one element of the global response to this pandemic. Therapeutic treatments, access to testing and health system support are also aspects that the WHO is focusing on to coordinate and end the pandemic.
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