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By Faizel Patel

Senior Digital Journalist


SA was ‘bullied’ into overpaying for Covid vaccines, Health Justice Initiative reveals

J&J was found to be the worst offender and is reported to have charged South Africa more than countries in the northern hemisphere.


Non-profit organisation Health Justice Initiative (HJI) has revealed that South Africa was forced to overpay for Covid vaccines when compared to wealthier countries like the United Kingdom.

The HJI made the damning findings on the Covid vaccine contracts between the Department of Health and pharmaceutical giants Johnson & Johnson (J&J), Pfizer and the Serum Institute of India, and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations (Gavi).

This comes after the HJI won a court bid for the disclosure of all Covid vaccine contracts and any applicable agreements with relevant pharmaceutical companies and entities.

Analysis

On Tuesday, 5 September, the HJI said that while the government made some of the documents available, it had until the end of September to submit the outstanding ones so a fuller analysis could be carried out.

The NGO said the conditions of the contract negotiations were found to have been unequal and at worst amounted to bullying towards South Africa.

HJI said it has studied the contracts which revealed that Africa was liable for payments of at least $734m (R14bn), including advance payments of almost $94m (R1.8bn) with no guarantees of timely delivery of the vaccines or of them being fully refundable.

“This deference to and fear of pharmaceutical power, in the middle of a crisis, in a constitutional democracy, should be of deep concern to the global public health community.

“It shows how much power was put into the hands of private-sector actors and how few options governments had, when acting alone, in the middle of a pandemic,” the HJI said.

The HJI also found South Africa paid 33% more than the AU price for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and paid the Serum Institute of India 2.5 times more for a generic version of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine compared to the UK.

J&J was found to be the worst offender and is reported to have charged South Africa more than countries in the global north. HJI said the company “charged SA $10 per vaccine dose, while the EU reportedly paid $8.50, and there are also claims that the non-profit price could have been in the region of $7.50.

J&J response

In a statement to The Citizen on Wednesday, Johnson & Johnson spokesperspn Kafi Mojapelo said the company “supported and worked closely with South Africa in every phase of their response to the pandemic.

“We supplied our vaccine to South Africa at our final global price of $7.50 per dose, transferred our technology to Aspen Pharmacare in Gqeberha to enable the local fill and finish of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine and later enabled Aspen to manufacture, market and sell its own Covid-19 vaccine, “Aspenovax”

“In addition, we advocated for and supported the donation of hundreds of millions of vaccine doses by the U.S. Government, EU Member States, the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand to COVAX to under-resourced countries. To date, more than 85 percent of our doses have been delivered to low- and middle-income countries,” said Mojapelo.

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SA bullied

The Daily Maverick reported that HJI founder Fatima Hassan told a media briefing: “This case has shown that when an NGO wants to use the Constitution to create the precedent for great transparency in our country, that is possible.”

Hassan said that Health Minister Joe Phaahla took a “prudent and wise decision not to oppose” the Pretoria High Court order.

“Unfortunately all of these contracts proved what we thought was happening … and that is that they are one-sided. All the power has remained with the pharmaceutical companies.

“We believe that our country, that is us as South Africans who put up billions of rands, that our sovereignty was taken away at the behest of very powerful pharmaceutical companies who are unelected and hold no public office in our country,” Hassan said.

“We were bullied into unfair and undemocratic terms in contracts that were totally one-sided. Put simply, pharmaceutical companies held us to ransom. And we must ask: did they do it to other countries too?”

Pandemic Transparency

Investigation

Hassen said at a minimum, there should be an investigation into J&J for extracting a restriction on export bans to benefit its agreement with local company Aspen Pharmaceutical.

“We believe governments in the Global South need to take the necessary steps so that this type of bullying is not repeated in the next pandemic,” Hassen said.

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Covid-19 Dr Joe Phaahla Health Department

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