WASHINGTON — Justin Trudeau stopped well short Friday of endorsing efforts to lift the veil on the trade secrets behind COVID-19 vaccines, insisting instead that Canada is already doing plenty to improve access to doses around the world.
Those efforts include taking earnest part in negotiations at the World Trade Organization about a possible waiver to the rules that protect those secrets, the prime minister told a news conference.
But whether he believes such a step would have the desired effect of rapidly increasing the supply of vaccines in the developing world, Trudeau pointedly refused to say.
"We need to emphasize that these are multilateral discussions with a great number of countries who all have different perspectives," he said in French when asked if he supports the idea.
"Canada is at the table to help find a solution. We're not blocking any negotiations; we need to work in the right way to ensure that people around the world will be vaccinated."
In theory, a waiver to the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, or TRIPS, would make it easier for developing countries to import the expertise, equipment and ingredients necessary to make their own vaccines.
The idea has been gaining steam in recent weeks, winning endorsements from progressive activists, lawmakers and anti-poverty groups around the world.
It got its biggest push to date Wednesday when U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai expressed American support for the idea and committed to text-based talks at the World Trade Organization.
Critics, however, call the idea wrong-headed, citing the glacial pace of WTO talks, the fact all 164 member countries would need to sign off, the complexities of vaccine manufacturing and the importance of the pharmaceutical business model that helped develop the vaccines in the first place.
Ottawa's position on the proposed waiver has been slow to coalesce.
International Trade Minister Mary Ng initially tweeted Canada's support for the U.S. decision and promised to work with its closest trading partner, but did not say if Canada would join the talks or advocate for a waiver.
Her promise in the House of Commons the next day committed Canada to sitting down at the negotiating table, but again left out any clues as to what position the government would take.
"We certainly are going to be actively participating in these negotiations," Ng said Friday, adding that Canada is focused on removing "all barriers" to vaccines, including production problems, supply-chain bottlenecks or export restrictions.
To make that point, Trudeau announced a $375-million cash infusion Friday for a World Health Organization "accelerator" that fosters the development and distribution of COVID-19 tests, therapeutic drugs and vaccines to low- and middle-income countries.
Ng's statement earlier Friday also made clear that the government "firmly believes in the importance of protecting (intellectual property)."
Diana Sarosi, policy and campaigns director for Oxfam Canada, called it a step in the right direction that Canada has agreed to talks, but assailed the government's "wait-and-see approach" on intellectual property.
"Canada continues to prioritize profits over public health," Sarosi said in a statement.
Others in the House of Commons, including members of Trudeau's own government, are making their position crystal clear.
A broad coalition of parliamentarians from across the political spectrum wrote to Trudeau this week to express support for a temporary waiver. More than 75 MPs and senators had signed on by Friday afternoon.
"We're not talking about running shoes or farm equipment — we are talking about a global health crisis, a planetary pandemic, that puts all of us at risk," NDP MP Don Davies told a news conference.
"I think it's a fair criticism to say that a number of countries — and I'm sorry to include Canada in this, but I must — have been stalling that process."
Even Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole joined the fray.
"Conservatives support a temporary suspension to intellectual property rules in this pandemic to help get vaccines as quickly around the world as possible,'' O'Toole said Friday.
A waiver is strongly opposed by the pharmaceutical industry, as well as a number of key world leaders who say it would be counterproductive to current vaccine production efforts and undermine the very business model that gave rise to the vaccines in the first place.
Others warn that consensus is notoriously difficult to come by at the world trade body — any single country can kill a proposal. Several prominent members, including Germany and the U.K., stand firmly opposed to the idea of a waiver.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 7, 2021.
— With files from Mia Rabson, Stephanie Taylor and Lina Dib in Ottawa
James McCarten, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said all signatories to the letter were MPs.