- More than 115 NGOs demand Canadian government stop collaborating on COVID-19 vaccine with one of the world’s largest cigarette corporations.
- The call comes during World Health Assembly (WHA) focused on improving pandemic response
- World Health Organization (WHO) recently rejected the Canadian/Philip Morris-backed vaccine over its Big Tobacco ties.
- Concern mounts that Canada will continue to contravene the global tobacco control treaty to distribute the vaccine.
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND — At a World Health Assembly focused on strengthening pandemic preparedness, an ill-fated collaboration between the Canadian government and a tobacco corporation is raising global concern. At the outset of the pandemic, the Canadian government spent $173 million in taxpayer dollars to bankroll vaccine development by the Philip Morris International (PMI)-owned Medicago Inc. biotech company. Now, more than 115 non-government organizations from around the globe are demanding the Canadian government press PMI to divest.
The Philip Morris vaccine—trademarked as Covifenz—was denied approval for emergency global distribution by the WHO in March due to the tobacco corporation’s involvement. The collaboration between the Canadian government and Philip Morris represents a blatant violation of the WHO Framework Convention for Tobacco Control—a global public health treaty ratified by more than 180 countries including Canada. The treaty has been in effect since 2005 and its provisions are binding on all Parties, including those discouraging governments from partnering with tobacco corporations.
“Canada should not be encouraging other countries to contravene the WHO’s decision and the global tobacco treaty by accepting the Philip Morris vaccine,” said Les Hagen, executive director of Action on Smoking & Health (ASH) Canada, who delivered remarks to this effect at this week’s WHA. “The Canadian government should not be putting other countries in the same compromising position that it finds itself in right now. Instead, Canada should be living up to its own obligations under the treaty.”
In a previous letter to the Canadian government, ASH Canada and other signatories noted that the WHO’s vaccine distribution arm (COVAX) is well-stocked with WHO-approved vaccines. Twelve vaccines have already been approved for global distribution. More are pending approval. And none of these other vaccines serve to profit a cigarette corporation when produced and distributed.
Signatories also noted the staggering and related human toll of the COVID-19 and tobacco pandemics. Tobacco use results in over eight million deaths annually worldwide which exceeds the total deaths resulting from COVID-19 to date according to the WHO. Users of tobacco products are also far more likely to experience severe and life-threatening symptoms from COVID-19 than non-users.
“The control of one pandemic should not exacerbate another,” said Akinbode Oluwafemi, executive director of Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa. “As WHA member states discuss a pandemic treaty, this principle needs to be more deeply embraced…not flouted as the Canadian government has done.”
Surprisingly, in 2018 the Canadian government championed a motion at a global tobacco treaty meeting urging countries to avoid exactly the type of tobacco industry collaborations it entered with PMI not two years later. Advocates have long been concerned that tobacco corporations would use their growing interests in pharmaceutical corporations as a means of accessing policymaking tables they’ve long been excluded from.
“This is a moment for countries and regulatory agencies to find their courage,” said Daniel Dorado, tobacco campaign director for Corporate Accountability. “The U.S., for one, shouldn’t be fast tracking a vaccine it doesn’t need that undermines simultaneous efforts to stem tobacco use. And Canada, most of all, needs to find the backbone to live up to its treaty obligations.”