A South African activist group is suing the government to reveal details of its contracts with COVID-19 vaccine makers. The Health Justice Initiative says transparency is needed to ensure fair pricing and prevent corruption.
How much did South Africa pay for each unit of its COVID-19 vaccines and on what terms?
Those are some of the questions posed by health activists in a lawsuit filed last week against the country’s health department.
Fatima Hassan is the founder and director of the Health Justice Initiative.
“What we are arguing in our papers in the context of South Africa is that in a pandemic, when we had a state of disaster like we’ve had… there needs to be heightened checks and balances, we need to, you know, be able to hold the different decision makers to account,” she said.
She says freedom of information requests filed for the documents have gone unanswered.
Hassan says it’s not just a matter of what South Africa paid for vaccines, but also where the country falls in the context of the world’s response to the pandemic.
She wants to know if any stipulations were made that left some countries paying more or waiting longer for vaccines.
“What are the implications then for over agreements and contracts as almost, you know, every single country in the world has signed and put money on the table. Some people have had, you know, governments have had to borrow money. There’s also been a situation of, we believe, of like a case of double standards, where some countries are allowed to control totally the supplies,” she said.
South Africa’s health department VOA confirmed to Foster Mohale that its legal team is reviewing the court filing and will respond through legal channels.
Mohale said several contracts between the government and COVID-19 service providers have been released publicly. But, he added, contracts that include nondisclosure agreements cannot be released.
Legal experts say the necessity of nondisclosure agreements during the pandemic is hard to justify.
Geo Quinto is the director of the African Procurement Law Unit at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University.
“We know that there’s been nondisclosure agreements signed around the world dealing with the supply contracts — we don’t know why… There might be trade secrets contained in some of these contracts that would be detrimental to the business of the supplier, and that could justify the demand that those be kept confidential, but none of those reasons would justify a blanket confidentiality on contracts,” he said.
The Health Justice Initiative says nondisclosure of contracts leaves countries at risk of over-paying.
Fatima Suleman is a professor in the Discipline of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of KwaZulu Natal.
“There’s the ability for pharmaceutical companies to obscure information and then, you know, start at a much higher price than they need to rather than actually working with governments to ensure maximum access… Pharmaceutical companies are getting stock to those that can pay the highest, they’re obscuring prices, they’re making large profits for their shareholders and themselves. And it’s not a public health imperative anymore for these companies, it’s an investment opportunity,” she said.
South Africa has faced numerous scandals related to spending for its COVID-19 response.
The country’s special investigation unit implicated a former health minister for allegedly laundering money through fraudulent contracts.
The Health Justice Initiative is now waiting for the government’s response to the lawsuit.