Pfizer demands SA ministers sign vaccine supply agreement

By S’thembile Cele

(Bloomberg) – Pfizer Inc. is demanding that South Africa’s health and finance ministers personally sign a Covid-19 vaccine-supply agreement so that it is indemnified from any claims made against it in the country regarding the shot.

The demand is contained in a March 24 letter from South Africa’s Health Minister Zweli Mkhize to his finance counterpart Tito Mboweni, seen by Bloomberg and confirmed by the National Treasury. Pfizer was not satisfied by assurances that the signature of the country’s health director general was sufficient to guarantee the indemnity, Mkhize said.

The demand threatens to further delay the roll out of South Africa’s vaccine program, which is lagging behind that of emerging market peers and a number of African countries, and heightens pressure on the government. The agreement is for the supply of 20 million doses of the vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech SE.

The ministerial signatures will give Pfizer the “assurance that the terms of the indemnity clause are acknowledged by government and, as such, any liability that may be established will be covered by the fiscus,” Mkhize wrote. “You will no doubt agree with me that there is mounting pressure and we can no longer justify publicly any further delays.”

Mkhize’s spokeswoman declined to comment. The National Treasury said in a response to a query that discussions about the signing of agreements were ongoing and confirmed receipt of the letter.

“We are in discussions with the Government in South Africa to provide access to the vaccine,” Pfizer said in a response to queries. “These discussions are confidential and we have nothing to announce at the current time.”

The demand was the last Pfizer would make and, once signed, vaccines would begin to arrive within two weeks, Mkhize said.

With over 1.5 million recorded infections and almost 53,000 deaths, South Africa is the worst-affected country by the coronavirus on the continent. So far only 231,605 people have been vaccinated as part of a study using Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine while a wider vaccination program is yet to begin.

The government has said an initial target to vaccinate 40 million people this year will be missed.

On March 26, News24, a South African news website, said larger deliveries of Johnson & Johnson’s shots would be delayed because the government had not set up a no-fault compensation fund, citing people it didn’t identify. Anban Pillay, a deputy director general in the health department, told Bloomberg there were no delays without giving further information.

(Corrects final paragraph to show fund had not been set up)

-With assistance from Antony Sguazzin.

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