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South Africa paid double EU price for COVID vaccines, unredacted contracts reveal

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Unredacted COVID-19 vaccine contracts between several pharmaceutical companies and the South African government reveal “pernicious pharmaceutical bullying,” claim civil society organizations, with the country paying higher prices for some of their COVID vaccines than the EU.

The public release of the contracts between the South African government and four vaccine providers — Johnson & Johnson (J&J); Pfizer; the Serum Institute of India; and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance — follows a court case brought by NGO Health Justice Initiative, which resulted in the South African government being forced to hand over the agreements.

The contracts reveal that the Serum Institute of India, which produced the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, charged South Africa $5.35 a dose, when the EU paid just €1.78, according to leaked prices (about $2.17 at the time those prices were published). South Africa paid $10 a dose for the J&J vaccine — 15 percent more than the EU paid.

However, South Africa was able to secure a discount over the EU price for the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, paying $10, compared to the €15.50 (just under $19) reportedly charged to the EU. But NGOs say it was still more than the cost price of $6.75 that the African Union was reportedly charged.

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Multiple civil society organizations have analyzed the South African contracts in recent days since they were made available to the Health Justice Initiative, concluding that the agreements reveal “pernicious pharmaceutical bullying and heavy-handedness,” said the initiative’s Fatima Hassan.

“The terms and conditions in these contracts and agreements are so one-sided, and so in favor of multinational corporations that they beggar belief,” she said. 

The contracts also reveal that J&J prevented South Africa from imposing export restrictions on vaccines, with both J&J and Pfizer barring the country from donating or exporting doses without the companies’ consent. In Gavi’s contract, which related to vaccines that would be delivered under COVAX — the global vaccine access scheme — there was no guarantee of the number of doses or delivery date for the jabs. 

While some of these allegations had already been reported in the media, the release of the unredacted contracts provides hard evidence backing up the accusations.

Globally, campaigners have pushed for increased transparency around the COVID-19 vaccine deals, which were often shrouded in secrecy and included strict clauses on indemnity and confidentiality. In the EU, the push has not only been for unredacted COVID-19 contracts but also details of alleged text messages between Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla around contract negotiations.

The release of the documents should result in global action, the group which includes HealthGAP and Global Justice Now, said. They are calling for the ongoing negotiations on the pandemic treaty and the revision of the International Health Regulations to consider how to enforce fair terms in similar future deals for pandemic products.

A spokesperson from Gavi told POLITICO: “COVAX was designed as a fair dose allocation system to ensure every country had access to COVID-19 vaccines.” “While lower income countries received doses free of charge, South Africa as an upper middle-income country joined COVAX as a self-financing participant. South Africa received over 9 million doses from COVAX, including some 8 million dose donations, free of cost.”

All the vaccine providers have been contacted for comment.

UPDATED: This article was updated to add comment from Gavi.

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