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A South African non-profit is going to court to break open Pfizer and J&J’s Covid-19 secrets

Business Insider SA
A vaccine with secrets.
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  • A South African non-profit is going to court in an effort to break through a global wall of secrecy from Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers.
  • The Health Justice Initiative says the SA government could never legally enter into non-disclosure agreements, and must show its contracts with the likes of Pfizer and J&J.
  • Vaccine makers have insisted on keeping virtually all commercial details around vaccines – including price – secret, all over the world.
  • Pfizer wouldn't even tell the HJI what legal entity contracted with the South African government.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

A South African organisation has started legal proceedings to demand the commercial details around Covid-19 vaccine supply in this country – the kind of information that coronavirus manufacturers have sought to keep secret across the world.

The non-profit Health Justice Initiative (HJI) said on Tuesday it had filed papers in Gauteng in an action that seeks to compel the minister of health to hand over a range of documents. It wants to see not only all contracts and agreements, but also wants copies "of all Covid-19 vaccine negotiation meeting outcomes and/or minutes, and correspondence" involved.

The HJI launched its efforts to obtain the documents in July 2021, under SA's Promotion of Access to Information Act (Paia). Those formal requests were effectively denied, it says – most recently by ignoring its correspondence – and it now needs the courts to enforce the law.

Only the government is cited in the matter because, says the HJI, it can't even tell what other legal entities are involved in vaccine contracts; both the department of health and Pfizer refused to give it details of the companies involved, while the likes of J&J did not respond to its requests.

The trouble with figuring out who is involved "is compounded by the fact that the manufacturer of Covid-19 vaccines has entailed partnerships between various private companies, as well as academic institutions," the organisation's director Fatima Hassan has told the court. "Multiple additional subsidiaries, distributors, and fill-and-finish companies are also involved in the supply chain."

The HJI argues that secrecy on the commercial terms of vaccine acquisition opens the door to speculation that the government "may have been compelled to overpay for vaccines, or to accept extremely onerous procurement terms. This has the real potential to erode public trust in the vaccination programme, and in government's ability to effectively procure and administer vaccines."

South Africa has at least once agreed to pay different prices for the same vaccine, depending on the channel through which they were acquired – and to pay more than governments in Europe were being charged. 

The HJI also argues that any non-disclosure agreements the government entered into would be in conflict with public policy, and unenforceable.

In Britain, the government redacted large parts of an agreement with Pfizer, and agreed to keep arbitration proceedings secret. Members of the European Parliament were denied details of vaccine deals, and demands for greater transparency have met with strictly limited success.

Experts have argued that government should stop being "partners in secrecy" with drugmakers, in order to properly regulate prices and so make vaccines more accessible.

(Compiled by Phillip de Wet)

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