Activists call for Johnson & Johnson to end ‘vaccine apartheid’

The PVC-SA banner displayed high outside the Johnson & Johnson offices. Arhive photo by Lilita Gcwabe

Johnson & Johnson does not see intellectual property as a barrier to Covid-19 treatments and vaccines

The People’s Vaccine Campaign of South Africa (PVC-SA) says that the patent laws preventing local pharmaceutical companies from manufacturing the Covid-19 vaccine are blocking fair and equitable access to healthcare for developing nations like South Africa, amid the looming threat of a third wave.

Activists and representatives from different organisations that endorse the PVC–SA’s Call to Action gathered outside the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) offices in Cape Town to demand the relaxation of restrictions on technology transfer and knowledge sharing, and for corporations like J&J to free the license on production of Covid-19 vaccines. The PVC-SA is also demanding greater transparency in discussions between J&J and government about procuring its vaccine.

The 11th of March marked a year since the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Covid-19 a pandemic. The devastation caused by the pandemic since then is expressed in the 17,000 healthcare workers globally who lost their lives according to a report by Amnesty International.

Abeedah Adams from the General Industrial Workers Union of South Africa (Giwusa) and a member of the PVC-SA said that equitable access is of major concern to them.

“We have already heard of medical practitioners in our country who abused the rollout and distribution system that government has set out for them. Vaccine Apartheid is also visible in the way that the developed countries have placed orders for four times the number of vaccines than they need. Not even half of our care workers have been vaccinated and we are already in March,” she said.

Adams says the waiver of patent and intellectual property laws is non-negotiable in ensuring the manufacture of more vaccines to benefit more people at a faster rate.

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“There is also a lot of secrecy around the pricing of the vaccine. We have no idea how much our government is paying. We demand transparency and accountability because at the end of the day, we are the people paying through taxation,” Adams said.

Thembeka Majali from the Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC) said that they fear the power pharmaceutical companies like J&J have if they are the sole manufacturers of a vaccine. “Companies should not be allowed to profit from people’s desperate need for the relief brought about by a vaccine during a pandemic,” she said.

Majali says developing countries suffer the most from intellectual property laws. “In a country where it is too expensive for people to get general treatment and tests for illnesses, and decent healthcare is only available to those on medical aid and who can afford it, the difficulty for people to access the vaccine during the pandemic is even worse. Our public health systems, especially, need to be able to treat affected communities,” said Majali.

Thembeka Majali leading the protest in song.

National Principal Investigator of the Johnson & Johnson trial in SA, Professor Linda-Gail Bekker said that even if all the patent laws were to be removed, the biggest concern is whether there is the manufacturing capabilities around the world to meet the demand for the vaccine at a global scale. “They are companies. By definition, it’s commercial and has to have incentives to stay in the market. That’s been the problem with HIV and TB, it’s that there haven’t been any incentives to draw people into that space because they didn’t see value in doing it for themselves,” she said. Bekker is skeptical about capabilities on the African continent to manufacture the vaccine.

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Nomaindia Thiwane, who has worked as a community healthcare worker (CHW) for three years said that she has been working under challenging conditions. “Working during the lockdown was very hard because we were exposed to the virus daily when going door-to-door to patients and administering treatments. We didn’t have enough masks and had to constantly sanitise our hands,” she said. She is looking forward to getting vaccinated and encourages other frontline workers to do the same. “So many of us have died or are still recovering from the after-effects caused by the virus. I have hope that the vaccination will protect us as CHWs and save us from the pandemic as a country. The companies holding the ropes on manufacturing doses need to let them go so that this can happen,” she said.

Abeedah Adams reading the memorandum out loud before handing it over to the J&J official standing behind the gate.

Upon delivering the memorandum, the J&J spokesperson refused to meet the peaceful crowd outside and preferred to accept the memorandum through the bars of the turnstile gates.

In an email to Elitsha, the pharmaceutical company says that they don’t see intellectual property as a barrier to the development of, or access to, Covid-19 treatments and vaccines. “We have forged new manufacturing partnerships with multiple companies across three continents, which include a license to our technology and the manufacturing know-how to enable the safe production of the vaccine on a global scale,” said the company’s Senior Director Medical Affairs, Abeda Williams.

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