Peter Bruce Editor-at-large & columnist
Anban Pillay. Picture: THAPELO MOREBUDI/SUNDAY TIMES
Anban Pillay. Picture: THAPELO MOREBUDI/SUNDAY TIMES

I tried something unusual the other day, to have, you know, a little fun. A column is usually the best way to deliver an opinion or comment on an event or a situation. Occasionally though the lucky columnist gets to bury a piece of news inside his or her piece. It spices things up and makes for a more informative and hopefully entertaining read. That is what I consider my job to be. The length I am given on my oldest column, The Thick End of the Wedge, is 900 words. I have never filed over length. If you're writing for print, you can't. This, though, is an online special. Long as hell.

 And so it was that, in the middle of the second week of January, while the government was still trying to cobble together vaccines capable of preventing the spread of Covid-19, someone told me that the guy in charge of selling the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine at Moderna, one of the two US drugmakers now with registered products on the market, was born in Durban and educated at Glenwood High and that he had attended a marketing course in Port Elizabeth. His name was Patrick Bergstedt.

At the time the government appeared to be speaking only to the Serum Institute of India, which has a licence to produce the AstraZeneca vaccine developed with Oxford University. And not getting very far either. The Indians seemed to want to inoculate their own population first (and still aim to vaccinate 500-million people by the end of 2021). We finally secured an order of just 1.5-million doses, enough for half of the health workers in SA, from India.

So I tried to do what I assumed would be impossible and to call Bergstedt on his phone and just ask him if he would supply us if we asked and, if so, when we could expect delivery of a significant amount. I little trivia. I mean what could possibly go wrong?

I tried everything. Moderna’s main number in Boston doesn't get you anywhere. I joined apps online that promised me his phone number and they didn't have it at all. I was forced to join LinkedIn, which I positively hate, to try to contact him. I followed him on Twitter. I was about to give up when I called a friend in the US to see what they could do. By Tuesday last week they had found him. I had his cell number.

I stayed up late to call, hoping to catch him after lunch. Cold-calling someone like this is not in my nature. I don't like it being done to me and I don't like doing it to other people. But I didn't think I had any choice. So I dialled the number. After a moment he answered.

I gave him my name and said I was from SA and that he didn't know me but that I wanted to ask him some brief questions off the record about his vaccine and SA. He said he was in a meeting and my heart sank. Then he either stepped out of the room or muted a Zoom meeting and said he could talk very briefly. This was January 12. I had less than two minutes with him.

I asked him if he would talk to the SA authorities about a vaccine if they called him and he said “of course”. I asked him if they decided to order 40-million doses of the Moderna vaccine, how soon he thought it could be delivered. He said “by mid-2021”. I asked about prices and he said he couldn't talk about them. I said I was pleased to see the Springboks at the top of the list of accounts he follows on Twitter. And then he had to go.

But, as far as I was concerned, it was enough for a chatty, slightly sneering, column about government incompetence. A tiny little bit of intelligence that I could play with. The next day I sat down to write the column, as I always do on a Wednesday.

But it was clear that without a quote from Bergstedt, the column would be too flat. I went back to him on WhatsApp and asked if I could quote him saying he would talk to the government and that he could deliver 40-million doses by midyear. He said I could, but warned that SA might not have the specialised deep freeze storage capacity to deal with it. That was fine. I knew about the freeze requirement and I'd understood his reluctance to talk about pricing.

So I wrote my column (Hello, useless ANC. I phoned Moderna and they have vaccines for us).

Sadly, I had not by then seen a piece in Toronto-based The Globe & Mail on January 3, to the effect that Moderna had declined to supply SA. Covid-19 vaccine supplies for Africa dwindling as Moderna opts out”, reads the headline when I look at it now.

 “One of the world’s leading manufacturers of Covid-19 vaccines has disclosed that it doesn’t plan to distribute its vaccine in SA, the most badly hit country on the African continent,” The Globe & Mail piece began. “The decision by Moderna, whose vaccine is currently being distributed in Canada and the US, is another indication of the severe difficulties African countries face as they seek fairness in the distribution of vaccines. Some have complained of “vaccine apartheid” by wealthier countries hoarding the supply.

 “We reached out to them,” said Anban Pillay, deputy director-general of SA’s health department, at a briefing on Sunday. “We tried to persuade them around supply,” he said. “It’s clear that they have no intention of filing a dossier any time soon with SAHPRA (SA Health Products Regulatory Authority).”

Sadly, The Globe & Mail report never actually gets Moderna's confirmation that they would not supply SA. “A spokesperson for Moderna did not respond to queries from The Globe & Mail on Sunday,” the paper reported.

All of which means that the only source for this information in the story is Pillay. He oversees the team responsible for vaccine procurement in the department and has manifestly failed to do his job properly. So he would spin, which is his right, but when you're reporting that someone says Moderna is disclosing something, you normally have a quote from them disclosing it. If you're using a third party to say that someone else has disclosed something, it is useful to the reader to put those remarks in quotes in a headline.

But by the time I wrote, enough people had taken Pillay speaking for Moderna as absolute fact. When my column appeared it caused a bit of a stir. Primedia radio host Refilwe Moloto was the first to take it way too seriously, scolding me in a Tweet for not knowing how much more expensive the Moderna vaccine is than AstraZeneca's, and did I not know that it needed to be stored at -20°C and that, anyway, it “has indicated that it has no intention to file for trials by SAHPRA” … “or do the cost, distribution & clinical verification of a drug not matter to you?”

She left me with a handy graphic purporting to divulge how much each vaccine producer's drug cost. It has the Moderna vaccine at $37 a shot. The most expensive of them all.

She was then joined by Fatima Hassan, a health activist, who was even more outraged that I should place a call to Bergstedt. She even managed to squeeze a barely readable piece onto the Daily Maverick on Sunday, when I presume, as with newspapers when I was running one, one's guard is down. Her piece (The great Covid-19 vaccine heist: Moderna — when solidarity is only a word) starts off by linking the death of Jackson Mthembu to Moderna.

But her argument is basically that Moderna built its vaccine with US government funding and that should mean the US could require it to supply into Africa, refrigeration notwithstanding. She and Moloto disagree wildly on Moderna's pricing. Where Moloto shows me $37, Hassan reports $16-$18 a shot. And then there's this fabulous line, dripping with moral outrage: “The NIAID/Moderna technology is the hope we all needed in this pandemic. But globally, Moderna only plans to make enough doses, in the ‘best-case scenario’, for 500-million people — less than 7% of the world’s population. See Moderna provides Covid-19 vaccine supply update, Business Wire. Moderna is trying to shatter that hope for everyone living in the global South — not just SA.”

Outrageous! So I clicked on her link to the vaccine supply update. I could find no mention of a “best case” that she talks about. There is, however, this: “Moderna, (Nasdaq: MRNA), a biotechnology company pioneering messenger RNA (mRNA) therapeutics and vaccines, today provided a supply update for the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine, increasing its base-case global production estimate from 500[-million] to 600-million doses for 2021. Moderna said it is continuing to invest and add staff to build up to potentially 1-billion doses for 2021.”

What I see there isn't “best case”. I see “base case” and a clear desire to produce a billion doses this year and not just 500-million.

But there is no stopping Hassan. Straight out of that, she comes up with this, channelling Pillay full on: “Thrice now, our own government has stated to the nation that Moderna has unilaterally decided, even though it had considerable US government funding support, that it does not ‘wish’ to supply SA and that it does not ‘wish’ to submit its clinical data/dossier to SA’s medicine regulator, SAHPRA, for approval. For its own commercial reasons.

“So, this week, when much was made about the (false) hope created by a Moderna official — (since Moderna has not publicly said that the description of that call with a columnist who writes for Business Day and the Sunday Times is incorrect, we must assume it is a fair record of the call) — we were distressed, because false hope is distressing.”

I unreservedly apologise for my role in her distress, obviously, but I am afraid that not actually naming me doesn't get her off the libel she commits in the next few lines.

“The NIAID/Moderna vaccine involves the use of technology invented by the US government, protected by US government patents, which Moderna likely infringes on,” she writes. I'll leave that to Moderna. But this next one involves me:

“So,” says our reporter, “the questions that the media and our legislature should be seeking to answer are:

  • Why is Moderna deliberately creating a false impression and not accurately showing all of its research funding sources?
  • Was it instead making a joke, in a pandemic, on that call?
  • Is perhaps our own government misrepresenting what Moderna said in its bilateral discussions?
  • Is the columnist misrepresenting what transpired on that call?  
  • Why is the company and our very own GCIS not providing timely and accurate information or responses on this matter to the public?”

Can you spot the libel? You damage my reputation merely by questioning whether I may have misrepresented the call I made.

Lucky for you I'm not litigious and I'm not oblivious to the ethical vaccinal dilemmas in a pandemic like this. But don't slander me. If you can find any shred of evidence that I misrepresented that call, however lightheartedly made, and I admit and maybe I should have changed personality first, put it out in public without delay.

Oh, and by the way, your figures on government support for Moderna are all wrong. They vastly underestimate the scale of US government support. Take a look at this stuff...

When the coronavirus first hit the US, Donald Trump of course said it would vanish overnight and then completely mismanaged the entire crisis. But he threw money at a vaccine. Here's how much:

Starting with what it called Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration, through its department of health & human services (HHS) last March subsidised the following (there's a graphic, but I'll write it out in case you don't have the bandwidth): 

  • March: The HHS pays Johnson & Johnson (J&J) $456m to start vaccine trials;
  • April: $483m to kick off Moderna's campaign;
  • May: Up to $1.2bn from AstraZeneca and Oxford;
  • July: $450m for Regeneron; $1.6bn for Novavax; $1.95bn for Pfizer; about $2bn to fund development of a vaccine from Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline;
  • August: Another $1bn to J&J, another $1.5bn to Moderna;
  • October (by which time, by the way, we had not yet, in SA, had even a conversation about vaccines): $375m to buy Eli Lilly’s first vaccines; and
  • December: Another deal with Moderna for 100-million more vaccines.

“This federal funding brings the total provided to Moderna for this vaccine, including vaccine development, clinical trials and manufacturing, to $4.1bn.”

In manufacturing, the US has also paid out $628m and $265m, as well as $160m and $31m to advance manufacturing capacity in the country. It also paid Corning, the glass company, $204m to expand their production of vials to take vaccine doses to the public.

It's all here. Read it and weep. Americans save their money and pay their taxes. Here, we save our money and we let the government literally steal our taxes. No-one's gone to jail yet for that and it's going to be hard to argue we deserve special treatment.

Who knows. Maybe Moderna did indeed “disclose” to Pillay that they were not going to give him their research. I don't really care. It wasn't the point, ever, of my column, and all he has to do is produce the letter or e-mail that says so.

As I write, Moderna reveals that while its vaccine is relatively effective against the SA virus variant, it is going full out to tweak its current product comprehensively to take on the SA variant. Good for them. We should buy it in great bulk. Whatever it costs will be a fraction of the cost of the next lockdown.

LISTEN | Dr Anban Pillay answers our vaccine questions

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