South Africa's envoy in Ottawa is calling on Canada to support a waiver on patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines to end "vaccine apartheid" as her country copes with the fallout of its discovery of the new Omicron variant.
South African High Commissioner Sibongiseni Dlamini-Mntambo said South Africa and India have drafted a waiver at the World Trade Organization that calls for patents on COVID-19 vaccines that big pharmaceutical companies hold to be suspended to speed up their manufacture and distribution to less developed countries.
"Unfortunately, Canada is one of those countries that have not supported us," Dlamini-Mntambo said in an interview.
Numerous experts have long predicted that new variants would emerge in less developed countries if the pace of vaccinating their citizens lags behind richer countries.
Dlamini-Mntambo criticized the ban by Canada and other Western countries on travel from southern African countries after scientists from her country discovered the new variant of concern and dutifully reported it to the World Health Organization.
"This really is a knee-jerk reaction. It's irrational, it's illogical. It's very harsh. We do not understand why travellers from South Africa and its neighbouring countries in the southern African region have been banned. Because actually, countries should be applauding South Africa for its sophisticated medical research capabilities," she said.
South Africa's medical research expertise, she noted, was "honed or refined during the unfortunate HIV-AIDS era. And now, they are proving to be very useful during the COVID-19 era."
Dlamini-Mntambo said that the emergence of Omicron is rooted in the vaccine inequity that has resulted in low vaccination rates across the Africa continent and less than one-quarter of her country being fully vaccinated. Meanwhile, young children in the West get their first shots and some adults their third.
"If you look at the countries in the West, I mean, they are beginning to talk booster vaccines, they are looking into rolling out vaccines for children while in Africa, we are struggling," she said.
"We've also now come up with terms like vaccine equity, vaccine hoarding, vaccines apartheid."
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh added his voice Tuesday to those calling for a patent waiver, saying Canada should not be protecting the interests of pharmaceutical companies.
"Banning flights or stopping travel is not going to help us in a global fight against this pandemic. It really is going to come down to the number 1, most effective tool so far that we have, is getting people vaccinated," said Singh.
"And to do that Canada has to take a role in pushing for a waiver of those patent vaccine patent protection. And we should not be protecting the interests of pharmaceutical companies."
The vaccine patent waiver request was one of many items that fell by the wayside when the World Trade Organization cancelled this week's long-awaited in-person meeting of trade ministers set for Geneva.
The Omicron outbreak led to an abrupt postponement of the meeting.
Dlamini-Mntambo said she hoped to see it back on the WTO's agenda soon.
Dlamini-Mntambo said South Africa might not have the ability to manufacture its own vaccines, but her country does have formidable research capabilities, which make it an important contributor to the fight to end the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Why are we being punished?" she asked.
"We may have challenges, for instance, in putting resources into research and what have you. But we have brilliant researchers."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 30, 2021.
Mike Blanchfield and Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press