SA billionaire Johann Rupert was one of the first people in Switzerland to get a Covid-19 vaccine - before the official launch of the local vaccination drive.

AFTER hunkering down in South Africa’s Eastern Cape for most of 2020, Johan Rupert headed for Switzerland when the alpine nation approved a coronavirus vaccine last month, Swiss daily Tagenszeiger reported on Thursday.

The newspaper alleges Rupert jumped the queue, sparking outrage in Switzerland.

There, the controlling shareholder of luxury goods firm Richemont received the first shot of vaccine of two roughly ten days ago, the outlet reported. Rupert, worth $6.5 billion according to Forbes did so at a Swiss private clinic owned by his family.

A spokesman for the clinic, Hirslanden, confirmed the report, saying the 70-year-old Rupert qualifies as a «test» patient before the scheme’s official start because he is overweight, diabetic, and has high blood pressure and coronary artery disease. 

The clinic was chosen by the Swiss government to distribute the vaccine in Thurgau, a canton in eastern Switzerland. Rupert’s official domicile is Satigny, near Geneva – literally the opposite end of the country from where he was vaccinated.

Rupert told the Swiss newspaper “it is important to me to set an example for all the employees of my company. My message is: only by vaccinating will we be able to find our way out of this crisis”.  

The region began vaccinating the public on January 12, after Rupert and others received the first injection. While fully in line with Swiss rules, the move raises troubling questions over wealth and access to a vaccine that is being rolled out by the Swiss government in stages.

Those over the age of 75 and patients with pre-existing conditions are currently being vaccinated. Rupert’s native South Africa is distributing the vaccine without registering it, but does not have anywhere near enough doses to cope with a recent surge that is likely linked to a new, highly transmittable mutation of the coronavirus.

Nina Schläfli, President of the Social Democratic Party of Thurgau, told Tages-Anzeiger that it was an “affront” to the canton’s population.

She said it was “inconceivable” that a “billionaire could fly in and everyone else would have to fall behind”. 

A Tages-Anzeiger reader asked government why he – as a Swiss citizen and resident of the canton – wasn’t vaccinated. “Do we have a cheap backyard vaccination strategy favouring privileged clinic shareholders, billionaires and overseas tourists?”

First Attempt Failed

In Switzerland, Rupert’s first attempt to receive the vaccine at a clinic in Lucerne reportedly failed – Tagesanzeiger didn’t specify in what way – before he was able to receive the first of two shots shortly before Thurgau’s vaccination program opened to the public.

Hirslanden, which posted 1.8 billion Swiss francs ($2.02 billion) in revenue last year, operates 17 clinics in Switzerland. South Africa-based Mediclinic, which owns all of Hirslanden’s stock, is in turn controlled by a Rupert family vehicle.

Rupert also controls 51 percent of Richemont, owner of luxury brands like IWC, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Net-a-Porter, while owning just 10 percent of shares.

On Thursday, UK home secretary said jumping the queue for the Covid-19 vaccine by tricking the NHS booking system is “morally reprehensible” and must stop, according to the UK’s Independent newspaper.

Speaking at a news conference on Thursday Priti Patel refused to rule out fines and other measures to prevent the practice.

Her comments come as top medics warns that people using software loopholes to get vaccinated early are at risk of causing the deaths of people more vulnerable than them.

“Quite frankly it is morally reprehensible,” Ms Patel said.

“These individuals are putting the lives of vulnerable people at risk, the most vulnerable that have been prioritised by the government to receive the vaccine because they are vulnerable in the sense of not just contracting the virus, but could die from this deadly, deadly virus.”

(Reporting by news agencies)

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