The Johnson & Johnson vaccine roll-out in our country was briefly halted due to risks associated with blood clotting that led to the death of one person, and left another hospitalized in a critical condition in the US (none of which were on the African continent). The South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAPHRA) has now called for the resumption of the roll-out program after this brief stoppage. The move to resume was motivated by health professionals who are involved in the advisory committee and have been helping to manage the pandemic.
Their argument is premised on a cost-benefit analysis of thrombosis that may arise from vaccination, versus that which arises from the pandemic itself. Some virologists called the vaccination pause “overcautious” and indeed “irresponsible”, and they successfully pressed for SAPHRA’s intervention.
The professionals took two other things into consideration: South Africa is facing an imminent third wave threat, and we do not have the luxury of halting J&J because we do not have the options of using other vaccines, unlike wealthy countries which have hoarded many different vaccines, in numbers several times their population size, exemplifying “vaccine imperialism.”
The U.S. administration is especially to blame, along with the conservative governments of Britain, the European Union, Canada, Switzerland, Brazil and other minor countries which put Big Pharma profits ahead of ending the Covid-19 pandemic.
Whilst it is important that the roll-out of vaccine should continue and rapidly accelerate so that a critical mass of South Africans are protected, thus ending the hellish period of Covid-19 as soon as possible, those who may have blood clots cannot be overlooked no matter how few they are. In fact, science does not thrive by ignoring the exceptional cases. It thrives by making case studies of those exceptional cases.
There is a much more profound problem than scientific protocol, however: the repeated failures of corporate pharmaceutical firms to develop an efficient and affordable vaccine whose risks are minimal, whose supply meets global demand, whose transport and storage requirements are not onerous, and whose fatality rate is zero.
Big Pharma firms have been showered with public funding, and yet one of the central features of this industry’s sustained corporate malgovernance is its lack of shared information, as inter-capitalist competition overrides the global public interest. The reason is simple: corporate profits are maximised in a milieu of secrecy, including not only the crucial ingredients and methods for producing vaccines, but also their effects, such as blood clots and other dangerous reactions.
The lack of transparency is also evident in the way South Africa’s Department of Health has continually fumbled the acquisition of vaccines, and has chosen only those made by Western corporations – AstraZeneca prior to its inapplicability to the local variant, Pfizer, Moderna and especially J&J (whose local ally Aspen is exceptionally close to Cyril Ramaphosa, as the CR17 campaign finance leaks revealed) – over other vaccines produced by long-standing allied countries we believe should have been addressed in a formidable alliance at the outset: Cuba, Russia and China.
Because there is a lack of transparency in Department of Health vaccine acquisition, our society still has no idea about the process in which Western corporations were given red carpet treatment.
We have no idea why we have no Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) Johannesburg-based Vaccine Centre, as was promised with such fanfare at the 2018 Sandton summit. (Indeed, we have no clue why the BRICS Contingent Reserve Arrangement announced in 2014 as an alternative to the International
Monetary Fund was not mentioned as a financing option last year instead of the $4.3 billion IMF loan that Finance Minister Tito Mboweni imposed on our society.)
We do know that both Western and BRICS corporations have a bad habit of bribing South Africa’s ruling party, sometimes facilitated by the Gupta machinery, sometimes independently through other routes. We know that the PricewaterhouseCoopers biannual rating of economic crime – especially corruption, bribery, cybercrime, moneylaundering and illicit financial flows – ranks South Africa’s own corporations as the most criminal in the world during the 2010s and second worst (tied with China, behind India) in 2020-21.
And we know that the Treasurer position in the African National Congress – currently occupied by South Africa’s health minister, Dr Zweli Mkhize – is one through which influence over the state can be and has been purchased.
We have stressed outrageous examples like the Hitachi giveaway of 25% of its local shares to Chancellor House following which it won the Eskom Medupi and Kusile contracts for boilers costing tens of billions of rand, even though Eskom chair Valli Moosa was also an ANC Finance Committee member at the time and was accused in 2008 by the Public Protector of “improper” conflicts of interest. Yet Hitachi has not yet been prosecuted for such blatant state capture or the repeated failures of its work, in spite of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act out-of-court settlement by Hitachi in 2015, costing the Japanese firm R275 million in fines (none of which went to long-suffering South Africans or our state).
In this context, we do not blame our South African compatriots for their suspicion of the ruling African National Congress and its money-man, Dr Mkhize, especially given last month’s revelations about lucrative procurement deals (of at least R85 million) that he authorised for his KwaZulu-Natal “Digital Vibes” chums for supposed communication services. We are all in favour of the economic empowerment of South Africa’s working class, including Stanger petrol attendant Radha Hariram, but not in a way that forever casts doubt on Dr Mkhize’s integrity – and that he has failed to answer tough questions about.
There is a more general point that is vital at a time we face not only vaccine imperialism (hoarding doses and refusal to concede on Intellectual Property rights in
the World Trade Organisation), vaccine apartheid (such as exists globally and also in South Africa thanks to our bifurcated health system), vaccine nationalism (the phrase used in polite company) and vaccine profiteering – soon to be followed by a dompass-style vaccine passport that further divorces the West from the Rest.
We desperately need the public sector to direct our resources in a manner that subordinates corporate power and corruption, to ending the pandemic. Would that require a “compulsory licensing” so that all our generic production facilities in Africa are mobilised to end the supply shortage, just as happened with AIDS medicines two decades ago? Would it even require nationalising the means of Covid-19 vaccine and treatment production? Would it mean building up in reality a state-owned pharmaceutical company, not the tokenistic one that Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande conceded last week was still just a broken promise?
Yes, yes and yes.
It is truly only in a post-capitalist context that we in the society might then properly assess all the risks associated with the vaccine, to all citizens. It is only when a South African government stands up for its society and sovereignty that we can assure scientific ethics, and thus ensure the end user that the heath product made in South Africa offers the lowest possible risks.
After all, while SAFTU recognises that it is in the interests of society to continue roll-out of the J&J vaccine, it is also in the interests of J&J and Aspen to produce and package the commodity notwithstanding potential risks to consumers. Western Big Pharma’s insistence on liability waivers, as authorised by Dr Mkhize for J&J and others, is proof of this downgrading of product safety.
All of our concerns, however, in no way align us with conspiracists who claim that vaccines are evil or ineffective. We want all the world’s peoples to get good-quality vaccines made in the public sector without a distorting profit motive, sharing among the world’s states all relevant immunological information. We want health workers to be first in the queue, and it is despairing that only 300 000 of our 820 000 have yet received their vaccine jabs.
But while endorsing vaccines, we recognise the failures of Big Pharma, of the BRICS, and of our own government to be open and transparent about the risks associated with capitalist medicine.
So we call for government to explore other vaccines, not just those whose slick corporate modus operandi are again and again responsible for our and other vulnerable countries’ misery and unnecessary mortality and morbidity.