Profit before people: AstraZeneca charging SA more than double what EU pays for Covid-19 Vaccine

In a classic case of profit before people, it’s emerged that South Africa will have to pay more than double for AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine compared to most countries in Europe.

London’s The Guardian newspaper reported that Belgium’s budget state secretary, Eva De Bleeker, posted the price list on Twitter, with the amounts of each vaccine that her country intends to buy from the EU.

The tweet was quickly deleted, but not fast enough to prevent netizens from taking screenshots, and has blown the lid off a sensitive and commercial secret – the price that the EU has negotiated to pay for the leading Covid vaccines.

De Bleeker’s tweet revealed that European Union (EU) states are paying $2.16 (R32.73) per dose for the AstraZeneca vaccine.

And even as the pharmaceutical giant has said it would cap the price at $3 (R45.46) per dose, South Africa’s Deputy Director-General of Health Anban Pillay confirmed to the newspaper via text that Pretoria was quoted a price of $5.25 (R79.56) per dose.

“The National Department of Health confirms that the price $5.25 is what was quoted to us.”

“The explanation we were given for why other high-income countries have a lower price is that they have invested in the [research and development], hence the discount on the price,” Pillay told Business Day.

“The unfair patent system is now one the biggest obstacles to defeating this virus,” said UK-based advocacy group Global Justice Now in response to the news.

South Africa, the continent’s worst virus-hit country, has ordered at least 1.5m shots of the vaccine from the Serum Institute of India (SII), expected in January and February.

SA currently has a cumulative Covid-19 caseload of 1 392 568, with 40 076 deaths and 1 201 284 recoveries.

“Shocking failure of rich countries to deal with this virus in a fair manner”

South Africa’s AstraZeneca vaccine order is part of 20 million secured doses to be delivered in the first half of 2021, President Cyril Ramaphosa has said.

The WHO-backed Covax facility is expected to provide shots for 10% of the population between April and June, while other vaccines will be procured via the African Union (AU) and bilateral contracts with other suppliers, he added during an address to the nation earlier this month.

The SII was also set to supply 100m doses of the vaccine to the African Union for $3 (R45.46) each, Reuters reported.

“South Africa’s desperate predicament is a symptom of the shocking failure of rich countries to deal with this virus in a fair and effective manner,” said Nick Dearden, executive director of Global Justice Now in a statement.

“Like many African countries, cases are soaring in South Africa, yet many countries will find a European-style lockdown impossible. As cases spread, mutations will continue to manifest and threaten all of our efforts to contain this disease.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres this week made an impassioned plea for rich countries to stop indulging in “vaccinationalism” which he said were self-defeating and would delay the global recovery.

Guterres’ comments were echoed by WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus who in turn blasted rich nations’ “me-first approach” to Covid-19 vaccines.

‘People in poorer nations treated as second-class humans’

Dearden noted that the news coincided with news from the World Health Organization (WHO) that its initiative “to share the science and know-how for coronavirus medicines had received no contributions.”

“The result of a kind of joint boycott by Big Pharma and wealthy governments,” Common Dreams reported.

Dearden pointed a firm finger at the global patent system which allows drug corporations to prevent mass production of generic alternatives and the sharing of life-saving technology.

“The situation in South Africa exemplifies the injustice that is being felt—and will continue to be felt—when the people in poorer or less-developed nations are treated as second-class humans compared to their more wealthy counterparts.”

Global Justice Now is calling on AstraZeneca to explain how this pricing has happened, given their promise to cap charges, said Dearden.

“This is the problem when you have essential medicines in the hands of big business, with almost no transparency as to pricing. We urgently need technology and patents placed in public hands so we can share this knowledge and produce more vaccines now. Our ability to defeat this virus fairly and effectively depends upon it.”

South Africa is battling a second wave of infections fuelled by a new coronavirus variant deemed more infectious by scientists.

The government aims to vaccinate two-thirds of its population – around 40 million out of nearly 60 million people – to achieve herd immunity by the end of 2021.

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