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COMMENTARY: Former United Nations envoy Stephen Lewis takes on Big Pharma

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WATCH: (Jan. 27, 2021) Head of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Emergencies Programme, Mike Ryan, said on Wednesday that it should be possible to adapt coronavirus vaccines quickly if they lose their effectiveness against mutations. – Jan 27, 2021

As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, a weary world is looking to vaccines to deliver us from death, illness, economic disruption and the daily tedium of lockdowns and isolation.

Now, a global competition for vaccines has begun. Some countries are doing better than others, with the “other” category including Canada, which trails other developed nations in vaccine delivery.

For poorer countries, though, the vaccine picture is much bleaker, as richer countries seek to vaccinate their own citizens first.

And lording over it all are big pharmaceutical companies, set to reap large profits from the vaccines they produce.

For Stephen Lewis, Canada’s former ambassador to the United Nations, it’s a disturbing picture.

Read more: Canadians’ trust in vaccines strong, but not strong enough: survey

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“It’s really awful, particularly for a continent like Africa,” Lewis told me.

“Health systems are being eroded. There’s not enough money for other infectious diseases like AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Think of the economic disrepair that has resulted as low-income countries have their economies set back hugely by the impact of the lockdowns.

“It’s just astonishing the ravages which COVID-19 is exacting.”

He knows whereof he speaks. Lewis is the former UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, and he points to a historic precedent.

Twenty years ago, drug patents were suspended in key countries to allow the production of cheaper generic drugs to treat HIV/AIDS.

“We reduced the prices from $12,000 per person per year to $350 per person per year, and then down to $100 per person per year. We saved millions of lives in the process.

“That’s the remarkably dramatic thing that generic drugs can do.”

Read more: For poorer countries, road to coronavirus vaccines far longer than the West

Now, he says, it’s time to do the same thing with COVID-19 vaccines, so the poorest nations on the planet can be vaccinated against the virus.

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“There is a great effort being made at the World Trade Organization by South Africa and India and 99 other low-income and medium-income countries to say, ‘Look, suspend the patents for these pharmaceutical companies, just for the course of the pandemic. Then you can reinstate them.'”

Not surprisingly, powerful drug interests are opposing the idea. Now Lewis is encouraging countries to stand up to Big Pharma.

“I can’t get over the fact that drug companies are deciding whether people live or die,” he said.

Lewis, meanwhile, ripped Canada for dipping into the vaccine supply purchased through COVAX, the global effort to secure vaccines for poor countries.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has defended the decision to seek 1.9 million doses of vaccine through COVAX.

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“When wealthier countries invest in COVAX, half of that funding is for doses at home, and the other half is to buy doses for low- and middle-income countries,” Trudeau said.

“Our contribution was always intended to access vaccine doses for Canadians, as well as to support lower-income countries.”

Read more: New poll suggests vaccine uncertainty on the rise among some Atlantic Canadians

But Lewis is not buying the explanation.

“In truth, it hurts the developing world,” he said. “It certainly hurts Canada’s international reputation and it’s not necessary.”

But he would likely get an argument from Trudeau’s Liberals on that one.

The Liberals have taken a hit in the opinion polls as vaccine production delays have slowed deliveries to Canada. Now the government is looking to secure vaccines elsewhere.

Lewis admits many Canadians would not likely side with his argument that Canada should think of poorer nations first.

“I’m sure my voice is a minority opinion,” he said.

Watch for Lewis and others to keep up the pressure, especially if COVID-19 variants further ravage the developing world.

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Mike Smyth is host of ‘The Mike Smyth Show’ on Global News Radio 980 CKNW in Vancouver and a commentator for Global News. You can reach him at mike@cknw.com and follow him on Twitter at @MikeSmythNews​.