The pandemic and the related supply-chain disruptions have impressed upon me the desirability of never running low on essentials. A few weeks ago, I noticed that my daughter’s inhaler was approaching its best-before date. There were still refills left on the prescription, so I arranged to pick up a new one at a local pharmacy. An hour or so later, I headed over to pick it up.
The experience was entirely routine and, frankly, banal but for one little stray observation I happened to make. While standing at the pharmacist’s counter, waiting for him to grab the little bag containing the puffer and the reams of paperwork that now come with any medication pick-up, I noticed two boxes full of vials in a little fridge (with a clear glass front door) just behind the counter. One was hand-labelled “Pfizer.” The other had a printed label that said “MODERNA” in all-caps bold letters. When the pharmacist came over with the puffer, I asked him whether they were vials of vaccine. “Yup,” he confirmed. “We have more than we can use. What we have will probably expire unless we get approval to start giving the Pfizer to kids in the next few weeks. We’ll end up throwing a lot of it out.”
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He gave his head a little shake, and I knew exactly how he felt. Just a few months ago, when my wife, a teacher, was among the first in the general population to be vaccinated, she arrived at a location in Toronto that was under heavy police guard. Armed officers and private security forces kept anyone away who didn’t have an appointment, and her appointment was confirmed at several points before she was allowed to actually enter the facility to be vaccinated. COVID-19 vaccine was precious beyond description. A few months later, I joined thousands of others in lining up for many, many hours just for a chance at getting a jab (I didn’t, but was able to the next day). This stuff was in incredible demand.
Now there are boxes of it sitting around in plain view, slowly spoiling.
This isn’t a bad thing, depending on how you look at it. If nothing else, it’s better to have the problem of too much rather than too little. It speaks to the tremendous success of the Canadian effort — both the effort of the federal government to procure it and then of the Ontario government to mobilize the campaigns to deliver it. That campaign continues, of course; Toronto Public Health announced Monday that it is beginning preparations to vaccinate those aged five to 11. We will obviously need supplies of vaccine for that effort (specifically Pfizer, which is likely closer to approval for children).
But take a step back and look at the global picture, and you’ll start to see the problem. Billions of people are unvaccinated all over the world, particularly in poorer countries. The pandemic continues abroad, and as new populations are infected, we may encounter new emergent variants — and the nightmare scenario of variants that nullify the immunity we’ve gained from either past infections or vaccination. It’s become a cliché, but it’s true even so: this isn’t over anywhere until it’s over everywhere, and most of humanity is unvaccinated.
I am a realist. Of course the rich countries were going to vaccinate themselves first. Anyone who didn’t see that coming is experiencing the totality of human history and experience differently than I am. But we could still do more to aggressively shift our efforts to vaccinating the rest of the species. Canada will continue to need vaccine at low levels indefinitely into the foreseeable future, because new people will age into the approved category every day, and vaccine-hesitant citizens will continue to change their minds. But after the children are done and we need only a slow and steady supply to meet daily needs, we shouldn’t ever have a box of precious vaccine wasting away in a Canadian fridge ever again.
It’s imperfect now, but arguably understandable. That window of narrow acceptability is closing. Remember how desperate you were to get a jab six months ago? Even three months ago? That’s someone else today. Let’s not let the politicians forget that pandemics are global events and need global solutions. Let’s not waste lives because we wasted vaccines.