Ukraine Ended Secret Authorities Spending. Vaccine Makers Now Demand It.

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Ukraine Ended Secret Government Spending. Vaccine Makers Now Demand It.

KYIV, Ukraine — After a revolution seven years ago, Ukrainians discovered that their ousted president had used public money to build himself a gigantic palace with a private zoo, a golf course and a garage full of antique cars.

To prevent such corruption in the future, a raft of reforms were put in place including a requirement that nearly all government contracts be made public, lest secret kickbacks slip into the pockets of high-ranking officials.

The overhaul, widely seen as a rare success in the country’s otherwise halting anticorruption drive, covered tens of millions of dollars in annual medical procurement deals.

But to secure vaccine supplies, Ukraine has been forced to largely abandon the rule — a move that the government says is not its choice as much as the demand of the pharmaceutical giants that control the supply.

In negotiating with national governments, drug companies including Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have insisted that many of the terms of the deals amount to trade secrets and must be kept confidential.

Health advocacy groups have roundly criticized those arrangements and said that governments far better positioned than Ukraine to spend vast sums on doses have been too willing to accept such secrecy.

The requirement has hamstrung the Ukrainian government and forced one state-owned procurement company set up to prevent graft in the medical system to be sidelined because it was required by law to disclose the terms of all contracts.

“This is due to extremely strict privacy rules and nondisclosure policies, which the procurement company will not be able to comply with under Ukrainian law,” Svitlana Shatalova, Ukrainian deputy minister of health, said at a news conference on Thursday.

The nondisclosure agreements allow the pharmaceutical companies to negotiate prices, delivery timelines and other conditions for vaccine deals without governments or their citizens comparing the agreements to those struck with other nations.

According to a document a European official mistakenly posted on social media in December and quickly deleted, the European Union negotiated a cheaper price for Pfizer’s vaccine — 12 euros, or about $14.60, per dose — than the U.S. government, which agreed to pay $19.50 per dose. European nations tend to pay substantially lower prices for drugs than the United States does.

In Ukraine, so far there has been no indication of corruption in the one vaccine deal it has already struck and no suggestion that money has been stolen in the procurement process.

But to meet the demands for secrecy from vaccine manufacturers, the government has been forced to act in a way that runs counter to clean government policies that the United States and other Western countries have pressed Ukraine to adopt, according to Ms. Shatalova, the deputy health minister.

At a meeting of the Ukrainian cabinet this month, the government excluded the state-owned purchasing corporation, the Medical Procurement Company, from vaccine negotiations without offering a full explanation.

The Ministry of Health said at the time that it would negotiate instead through an international nonprofit group, Crown Agents, which helps developing countries obtain medical supplies. Ms. Shatalova’s statement on Thursday was the first to link the change to the secrecy policies of the vaccine makers.

The director of the Medical Procurement Company, Arsen Zhumadilov, has objected to the change. In an interview, he said his organization was established “as a safeguard” against concentrating in one government office millions of dollars of purchasing authority for the country’s mostly socialized medical system — which for years before the revolution was a cesspool of corrupt dealing.

Ukraine has already purchased one coronavirus vaccine, from the Chinese company Sinovac. In that deal, Sinovac allowed the Ukrainian government to publish some but not all terms of the agreement. It showed Ukraine had paid $18 per dose for 1.9 million doses but did not disclose the fees paid to a Ukrainian company, Lekhim, that acted as an intermediary.

Since late last year, the Ministry of Health has come under attack in Ukraine for failing to strike a vaccine deal with a Western supplier. Russia promoted its vaccine, Sputnik V, as an alternative, but many Ukrainians are wary of relying on a country they are at war with for the lifesaving doses.

In any case, deliveries of American-manufactured vaccines will be delayed until later this year under a Trump administration ban on exports until demand is met in the United States. Ukraine has been seeking vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, and from Johnson & Johnson, which experts said was likely to win approval for its product from safety regulators in Europe in coming weeks.

Ukraine, which has registered about 1.2 million coronavirus cases and around 22,000 deaths, is expected to receive enough vaccines for about 10 percent of its population starting in February or March from the Covax program, a global initiative aimed at working with manufacturers to provide equitable access to vaccines.

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