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Vaccine price secrecy is morally repugnant

Reader, allow me to speak on the issue of the confidentiality of negotiated prices between pharmaceutical companies and governments. That confidentiality is imposed, obviously, by the pharmaceutical companies, along with confidentiality provisions.

But I am amazed that institutions like the World Health Organization, or the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank, haven’t blown the whistle on such a provision. The WHO because it is involved in the negotiations for the vaccine alliance (COVAX), and the WB and the ADB because they have committed to lending to countries to pay for the vaccines.

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Where does the much-vaunted principle of transparency demanded or strongly recommended by these banks (along with accountability) come in with such confidentiality provisions? More to the point, surely this price secrecy is a primary breeding place for corruption?

At the very least, the WHO, or the WB, or the ADB could have pointed out that other (European) pharmaceutical companies do not seem to impose such price secrecy conditions. And insofar as the Chinese pharmaceutical companies are concerned, these multilaterals could have also pointed out that the whole world already knows that Sinovac charged its Chinese customers in Jaixing city 200 yuan ($29.75) per dose, while it will be charging Indonesians a little more than half of that ($13.60). Shouldn’t there have been a call to explain such a divergence? Or are the citizens of China not within their ambit, and must be left solely to the Chinese government?

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And why the Chinese themselves did not complain that they were being overcharged may be either because they still don’t know about it, or they are afraid of reprisals from the government. For that matter, the same question may be asked of the Americans, when it came out that Pfizer was charging the Belgian government only $14.70 per dose (for five million doses). But it is charging the US government $19.50 per dose. The answer, in this case, may be because they are getting the vaccines for free from the government, and/or that the Trump administration was overwhelmed with other problems.

By the way, Pfizer complained about the breach of confidentiality, and the Belgian politician who posted the price list (Eva de Bleeker, secretary of state for budget) immediately withdrew her tweet. And guess what? A European Commission spokesperson (unnamed, fortunately for him) sided with Pfizer: “We can’t say anything about this case, everything about vaccines and prices are covered by confidentiality clauses, in the interests of society and also in the interests of negotiations ongoing,” he said.

Unfortunately, he did not elaborate on how the interests of society would be served by keeping prices confidential. Maybe because he did not really know what he was talking about, like some other spokesperson I could mention.

Contrast this behavior with that of AstraZeneca, which announced early on that its vaccine prices would be sold at $3 a dose at the maximum “to provide vaccines to the widest population with as fair access as possible” for the duration of the pandemic. No need for confidentiality.

Unfortunately, its Indian partner went on to charge South Africa $5.25 per dose, and the South African government is accepting the price. I don’t know whether there is corruption going on, or whether South Africa accepts that it hasn’t contributed toward the research (that is its stated reason), or whether it thinks that $5.25 per dose is way better than any Chinese or American vaccine price. But at least, the South Africans can accept or reject what their government has done, because they know all the facts.

My conclusion: The provision that prices must be kept confidential between the government and the pharmaceutical company is morally repugnant. Why should citizens, whose taxes are paying for the vaccine after all (either now or later), be kept ignorant of such an important piece of information? It also goes against all the principles of governance that multilaterals strongly recommend we follow (and rightly so) if we expect to succeed in our quest for development.

Pity that President Duterte did not take up this cause. He could have been a hero.

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TAGS: Coronavirus Vaccine, COVAX, rules on confidentiality, vaccine alliance, vaccine prices, World Health Organization
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