In a landmark ruling today, the North Gauteng High Court, Pretoria, has ruled in favour of making government’s “secret” Covid-19 vaccine procurement contracts public, giving the National Department of Health a 10-day window to release these documents.
The Health Justice Initiative who took the matter to court said Judge Anthony Millar's order comes as a significant win for advocates of transparency and accountability.
Concerns have been raised over the allocation of substantial public funds to these contracts.
Allegations have surfaced that the government may have procured vaccines at inflated prices compared to global standards.
Furthermore, there are claims that the contracts may contain unfavourable terms, including broad indemnification clauses, export restrictions, and non-refundability clauses.
Foster Mohale, the spokesperson for the Health Department, said the department had noted the court judgment.
"The department will study the judgment and respond in due course," he said.
The court decision gives the government 10 days to disclose Covid-19 vaccine negotiation contracts, meeting notes, and correspondence with any vaccine manufacturer or licensee, including with Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Aspen Pharmacare, Sinovac, and the Seum Institute of India, as well as bodies including Gavi/Covax, the African Union Vaccine Access Task Team, and The Solidarity Fund.
As South Africa begins its recovery from the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic, this ruling sets a crucial precedent, the Health Justice Initiative said.
The Health Justice Initiative said that with the government's push towards National Health Insurance (NHI) and growing reports of corruption within the healthcare sector, the need for transparency is paramount.
"With increasing reports of corruption within the healthcare sector, we cannot have a healthcare system shrouded in secrecy. Procurement must be held in check, as it will involve powerful multinational companies, particularly from the pharmaceutical industry," the Health Justice Initiative said in a statement.
The procurement process, especially when dealing with influential multinational pharmaceutical companies, must be transparent and accountable.
The issue of secrecy in the procurement of Covid-19 vaccines is not unique to South Africa.
Globally, there have been concerns about the terms agreed upon with powerful vaccine manufacturers.
Reports suggest that these manufacturers may have exerted undue influence on governments, especially in the Global South, leading to contracts that maximised their profits without ensuring maximum accountability.
This judgment, however, offers hope to other nations, the Health Justice Initiative said.
It provides a legal precedent that can be used by other countries to demand open contracting within their borders.
Responding to the news, Mohga Kamal-Yanni, policy co-lead for the People’s Vaccine Alliance, said: "Pharmaceutical companies should never be allowed to operate without public scrutiny, particularly in a pandemic. But in South Africa and many other countries, governments were forced to sign up to strict secrecy clauses for their populations to access lifesaving vaccines and medicines.
"This landmark decision shows that the public can take on powerful pharmaceutical companies and win. We hope to see more cases like this around the world.
"Transparency and equity must be at the heart of the world’s response to health crises. People have a right to know how much pharmaceutical companies are charging them for lifesaving vaccines and medicines. And that right must be enshrined in the Pandemic Accord and the International Health Regulations."
Tian Johnson, Chair of the People's Vaccine Alliance Africa, added: "The core of this judgment affirms our rights as Africans to not only hold those who claim the title of "leader" accountable but also reminds us that the urgent work of pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response can only happen with openness, transparency, and a wilful and conscious effort to recognise civil society as critical accountability partners. The work to realise our dignity as Africans will only be complete when transparency and openness are our defaults. The work of the HJI in this regard has shifted the needle closer to the health justice that is our birthright."