/ 19 April 2021

Pfizer backs down over ‘unreasonable’ terms in South Africa vaccine deal

Coronavirus Vaccine Pfizer Biontech Photo Illustration
The priority for Africa is to achieve herd immunity for Covid-19, the head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) said at a weekly briefing on Thursday. ( Photo by Vincent Kalut / Photonews via Getty Images)

Pfizer has backed down over its controversial demand that the South African government put up sovereign assets guaranteeing an indemnity against the cost of any future legal cases, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism can reveal. 

During Covid-19 vaccine negotiations, the company sought indemnity against civil claims from citizens who had experienced adverse vaccine effects — meaning that the government would have to cover the costs instead.

On Wednesday, South African Health Minister Zweli Mkhize, voiced frustrations about “difficult and sometimes unreasonable” terms his country’s government had been presented with during contract negotiations with vaccine manufacturers, including Pfizer.

In a briefing letter sent ahead of his appearance at the parliamentary health committee, Mkhize said one condition in particular demanded by Pfizer was “too risky” — that the country put up sovereign assets as potential collateral.

Internationally Pfizer wanted indemnity

In its negotiations to provide vaccines to countries worldwide, Pfizer has asked governments for wide-ranging indemnity protection against any civil claims a citizen might file. 

This means that if Pfizer were to be sued by someone who had suffered a rare adverse effect from the vaccine, then the government, not the company, would have to pay for legal costs and compensation. This would apply even if the case were brought due to the company’s own acts of negligence, fraud or malice. 

In other negotiations, Pfizer went further. The company required some Latin American governments to put up sovereign assets, including federal bank reserves, embassy buildings or military bases — as a guarantee against indemnifying the cost of future legal cases. This was reported by the Bureau in February and picked up by more than 25 media organisations worldwide. 

Pfizer told the Bureau: “Pfizer and BioNTech have no intention of interfering with any country’s diplomatic, military, or culturally significant assets.” 

Unredacted draft contracts between Pfizer and the Dominican Republic, Albania and Peru show that the company sought to be indemnified against problems at any step of the supply chain — including packaging, manufacturing and storage. Experts told the Bureau it was “unreasonable” to require governments to pick up the bill for any negligence by Pfizer.

In South Africa’s case, Mkhize said the clauses “posed a potential risk to our assets and fiscus [public purse]”. He described how Pfizer’s late demand caused delays in the discussions, which in turn put back the anticipated vaccine-delivery dates. 

Mkhize wrote that the government was “relieved” when Pfizer eventually conceded and removed the “problematic term”. He added: “As the government, we found ourselves in a precarious position of having to choose between saving our citizens’ lives and risking putting the country’s assets into private companies’ hands.”

A level playing field 

Experts have raised concerns that Pfizer and some other big pharma companies have demanded complete confidentiality during the recent vaccine negotiations, which would prevent the public from knowing about issues including indemnity protection and price. In South Africa, there are fears that any such secrecy clauses could undo public trust built up by years of anti-corruption work.

“I think it is important that this [sovereign assets] clause has been taken out,” said Georg Neumann of the not-for-profit organisation Open Contracting Partnership. 

“When contracts are negotiated in secret, companies have the power to dictate the terms. And I think what we’re seeing here is that transparency — when contracts with other countries have been made public — has improved that balance and created a bit more of a level playing field.”

A contract for 30-million doses of Pfizer vaccine has now been signed at $10 a dose. Nearly two million doses are scheduled to arrive in South Africa in May and 2.5-million in June. The government has made down payments in its deals with Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, which are not refundable under any circumstance. 

“This is another onerous term that we had to concede as manufacturers were not prepared for it to be removed,” Mkhize wrote.

Yousuf Vawda, a professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s law school, said: “While Pfizer appears to have dropped its demand on sovereign assets, it has still insisted on the indemnity and no-fault compensation commitments … Such conduct must be condemned in the strongest terms, as they are holding governments to ransom and delaying the rollout of vaccination.”

More talk as Covid-19 tally rises

Pfizer told the Bureau: “Pfizer and BioNTech seek the same kind of indemnity and liability protections they have in the US in all of the countries that have asked to purchase our vaccine, consistent with the applicable local laws. 

“In markets that do not have the legal or legislative protections that are available in the US, we work with governments to find mutually agreeable solutions, including contractual indemnity clauses.”

The delayed Pfizer deal arrives as South Africa is facing a third wave of Covid-19. In total, the country has recorded nearly 1.6-million cases and more than 53 000 deaths.

Its response has been complicated because current vaccines appear to be less effective against the dominant variant circulating in the country. Less than a quarter of the country’s 1.2-million frontline health workers have been vaccinated, using doses donated by Johnson & Johnson. However, its roll-out has been suspended to investigate a potential link to blood clots. South Africa decided to sell or donate 1.5-million doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine when a small study suggested the jab might not adequately prevent mild or moderate illnesses in patients with the country’s dominant variant.