Ministry matters

South African nonprofit sues Department of Health over vaccine transparency

A group of South African activists is suing the government over revealing details of its contracts with manufacturers of COVID-19 vaccines. The Health Justice Initiative says transparency is needed to ensure fair pricing and prevent corruption.

How much has South Africa paid for each unit of its COVID-19 vaccines and on what terms?

These 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 argue in our articles in the context of South Africa is that in a pandemic when we’ve had a state of disaster like we’ve had…there needs to be stronger checks and balances , we have to, you know, be able to hold 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 has paid for the vaccines, but where the country stands in the context of the global response to the pandemic.

She wants to know if any stipulations were made that left some countries paying more or waiting longer for vaccines.

“So what are the implications for agreements and contracts, because almost, you know, every country in the world has signed up and put money on the table. Some people had, you know, governments had to borrow money. There has also been a situation of, in our view, like a case of double standards, where certain countries are allowed to totally control supplies,” she said.

South Africa’s Department of Health spokesman Foster Mohale confirmed to VOA that his 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 made public. But, he added, contracts that include nondisclosure agreements cannot be published.

Legal experts say the need for nondisclosure agreements during the pandemic is hard to justify.

Geo Quinto is the Director of the African Procurement Law Unit at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa.

“We know that non-disclosure agreements have been signed around the world regarding supply contracts – we don’t know why… There could be trade secrets contained in some of these contracts that would be detrimental to the activity of the supplier, and that could justify the request for confidentiality, but none of these reasons would justify complete confidentiality of the contracts,” he said.

The Health Justice Initiative says non-disclosure of contracts puts countries at risk of overpaying.

Fatima Suleman is a professor in the discipline of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of KwaZulu Natal.

“Pharmaceutical companies have the ability to hide information and then, you know, start at a much higher price than necessary rather than working with governments to ensure maximum access… Pharmaceutical companies get shares from those who can pay the highest, they obscure the prices, they make big profits for their shareholders and themselves. And it’s no longer a public health imperative for these companies, it’s an investment opportunity ” , she said.

South Africa has faced numerous scandals over spending related to its COVID-19 response.

The country’s special investigation unit has implicated a former health minister for allegedly laundering money through fraudulent contracts.

The Health Justice Initiative is now awaiting the government’s response to the lawsuit.