By Tara Davis and Nicola Soekoe
In January 2021, the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) observed that the world was on the brink of a “catastrophic moral failure” if wealthier nations did not ensure the equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. Global health activists and civil society organizations who worked transnationally to curtail what came to be referred to as “vaccine apartheid” faced a pharmaceutical industry that globally relied on secrecy, capital-friendly trade laws, and brute economic force to shirk considerations of human rights. In many ways, pharmaceutical companies and the states that protected them, including by failing to achieve consensus at the World Trade Organization (WTO) for a waiver of intellectual property rights with respect to vaccines, seemed impenetrable.
Unsurprisingly, given the extreme position of power from which pharmaceutical companies were negotiating contracts, there were widespread reports and allegations of inequitable contractual terms and a culture of bullying in the development of contracts. This was an issue of global concern for a long period during the pandemic. In South Africa, the Health Justice Initiative (HJI), a local advocacy organization, joined the global calls for greater procurement transparency.
However, when the South African Department of Health refused to disclose even the names of the entities with which it had entered into vaccine-related agreements, the HJI was forced to turn to the courts for relief.