South African lives were priority, says Health Department as Covid-19 contracts probed

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The Health Department has defended agreements to secure Covid-19 vaccines after a multi-group analysis found South Africa was “bullied” into signing away sovereignty and agreeing to terms for vaccine contracts that were one-sided and unethical via “ransom negotiations”.

The department said it had agreed to the terms and conditions of the contracts, or more than 200 000 people would have died.

The multi-stakeholder group led by the Health Justice Initiative (HJI) received and went over four contracts handed over to them following court action, which revealed “punitive, one-sided conditions that forced South Africa to hand over sovereignty”, with none of the contracts agreed under South African legal jurisdiction.

The group found that the agreement between US-based Johnson & Johnson and the South African government was conducted under English and Welsh law.

“South Africa was liable for payments of at least $734 million (about R14bn), including advance payments of almost $95m, with no guarantees of timely delivery.

“The country was forced to overpay for vaccines, paying 33% more than the African Union price for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and paying the Serum Institute of India 2.5 times more for a generic version of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine compared to the UK.

“The agreements placed people and governments in the Global South in the unenviable position of having to secure scarce supplies in a global emergency (2020-2022) with unusually hefty demands and conditions, including secrecy, a lack of transparency, and very little leverage against late or no delivery of supplies or inflated prices – resulting in gross profiteering.

“Moreover, SA’s sovereignty was bartered for scarce supplies. This should never happen again. It is unconscionable, imperial and unethical,” the group found.

South Africa was liable for $734 475 000 in payments for Covid-19 vaccines including advance payments of $ 94 725 000, including J&J’s $10 a dose (15% more than the company charged the EU).

Reacting to the findings, Health Department spokesperson Foster Mohale said the department entered into the agreements to secure vaccine doses to protect the lives of South Africans against the deadly virus which claimed more than 100 000 lives in the country.

“There is no argument that low and middle-income countries around the world, including South Africa, had limited bargaining power to secure vaccine doses and negotiate the price of vaccines due to a number of reasons, including the limited number of manufacturers.”

“The lives of the South Africans became our priority. We had to agree to the terms and conditions of the contract, otherwise more than 200k people would have died,” he said.

Johnson & Johnson spokesperson Mmakafela Mojapelo said that they “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.

“In addition, we advocated for and supported the donation of hundreds of millions of vaccine doses by the US government, EU member states, the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand to COVAX to under-resourced countries.

“We remain deeply committed to helping address the health needs of people in South Africa,” she said.

Cape Times

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