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Global Covid-19 war brews as vaccine giants accused of putting profits before public health

Conflict comes as SA scientists claim government has given up on vaccine rollout

20 February 2022 - 00:00 By Tanya Farber and Claire Keeton
Six 20m shipping containers called Biontainers, portable vaccine factories for Africa, are being developed in Germany by Pfizer’s partner BioNTech.
Six 20m shipping containers called Biontainers, portable vaccine factories for Africa, are being developed in Germany by Pfizer’s partner BioNTech.
Image: BioNTech

A global war is brewing over Covid vaccines and SA — the base of the World Health Organisation (WHO) vaccine equity hub — is at the heart of it.

The conflict comes as scientists claim that the government has given up on the vaccination rollout, which has virtually stalled with only a third of adults fully jabbed.

Three vaccine giants are under fire for allegedly prioritising profit over public health amid rows about intellectual property (IP) and a shipping container manufacturing  system.

The container model will see companies setting up ready-made vaccine factories in Africa, a process that will impart no skills to locals and see stock being shipped back to Europe, according to the British Medical Journal (BMJ).

This week, mRNA vaccine manufacturer Moderna received a letter from 64 groups including Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders demanding the withdrawal of patent applications in SA and calling on the company to give technical assistance to the WHO hub.

Fatima Hassan, head of the Health Justice Initiative — one of the signatories — said: “Moderna has not shared IP, tech and knowledge in the middle of a pandemic, and they are currently in a dispute with the US because a public investment was made towards it so it’s not even their IP alone.”

Reuters reported that Moderna confirmed it had filed for patents in SA and elsewhere but denied it would hamper vaccine access in Africa. Spokesperson Colleen Hussey reiterated the company’s October 2020 pledge not to enforce Covid-related patents during the pandemic. 

The BMJ pointed a finger at Pfizer after studying documents which showed BioNTech, the company’s partner in the vaccine that has been rolled out in SA, had undermined the hub and opted for the container model instead.

Tulio de Oliveira, the South African scientist behind the team responsible for discovering Covid variants, took Pfizer to task on Twitter, saying: “We approached BioNTech/Pfizer so many times to ask for knowledge transfer to SA. Their answer? Not that interested and thanks for increasing our profit! Public health or capitalism health?”

Hassan said the container model means pharma companies “come with their staff and scientists, all of which can be removed at any moment”.

“They want to bypass local agencies so the whole set-up is colonial and paternalistic. It is February 2022 and they are still not sharing IP. Instead they are giving us a model — this container model — which is a slap in the face.”

BioNTech-Pfizer told the BMJ plans to manufacture mRNA vaccines in Africa “will be done in close alignment with the WHO, the AU and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention”.

Johnson & Johnson (J&J) also came under fire for pausing production at its main Dutch plant to make a more lucrative, non-Covid vaccine.

The New York Times said the pause is worrying for much of the developing world where the J&J vaccine is the main weapon against Covid.

J&J has given Aspen Pharmacare in the Eastern Cape the rights to its IP including data, formulation and copyright, meaning it is a de facto clone of the J&J vaccine.

But Hassan said this is too little too late. “If they were really interested in sharing IP they would have created a non-exclusive licence long ago,” she said.


200,231: Average daily jabs administered in the week ending August 28 2021, SA’s best total so far

52,867: Average daily jabs delivered in the week ending February 12 2022. 

The New York Times reported that Jake Sargent, a spokesperson for J&J, said the company was “focused on ensuring our vaccine is available where people are in need” and that its global production network “is working day and night” to help fight the pandemic.

On Friday, President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke at a briefing on the WHO vaccine tech transfer hub that has been set up in SA, with Kenya, Senegal, Tunisia, Egypt and Nigeria appointed as “spokes”.

He said the work of the hub “has been hampered by IP barriers. This for us is a serious matter that could occur in other countries ... The lives of hundreds of millions of people rather than the profitability of a few companies is what matters.”

Meanwhile, University of Cape Town professor Jeremy Seekings, director of the Centre for Social Science Research, said the government appeared to have “abandoned vaccination.

In his state of the nation address, the president barely mentioned it, and said nothing about how it would be revived. He never even referred to ‘vaccine mandate,’” he said.

“The number of people vaccinated is far below the target set by the national government last year. Some provincial health departments have been innovative, but for the most part the vaccination programme has faltered in the face of any difficulty.”

Wits professor of medicine Francois Venter said the vaccination programme had been woeful despite mountains of unused supply, adding: “The virus has been far, far more efficient at immunising South Africans than our glacial health system.

The rise and fall of SA's Covid vaccination rollout.
The rise and fall of SA's Covid vaccination rollout.
Image: Jeremy Seekings

Professor Glenda Gray, president of the South African Medical Research Council, called for a mass media campaign to rev up the rollout. Vaccination remains a priority and we have to keep on encouraging our people to vaccinate,” she said.

Gray is the co-principal investigator of the Sisonke study, which gave health-care workers first access to Covid vaccines a year ago. She said the Sisonke teams are collecting data to inform SA’s vaccine boosting strategy ahead of the fifth wave expected in winter.


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