Did Pfizer wait on purpose?
After the US elections, a prominent Croatian RTL TV news anchor Zoran Šprajc, made a comment in one of the most watched news shows in Croatia called RTL Direkt, assuming that the bio-pharmaceutical company Pfizer waited on purpose for the end of the elections to publish news about the vaccine against Covid-19. However, Pfizer gave reliable data and reasons for the exact date of publishing the results. Therefore, Mr Šprajc’s statement is assessed as false.
Anchor’s intro in the Croatian news show RTL Direkt in November was as follows: “And if you’re wondering why Pfizer waited for the U.S. election to be over to announce this sensationally good news, let’s also recall the fact that Trump forced the U.S. pharmaceutical industry to lower drug prices, and thus knocked out billions of dollars in profits, so they weren’t really interested to announce the news on the eve of the election. On the other hand, we can expect that the new US administration will know how to return the favour to the pharmaceutical industry, and the American brothers will probably soon pay dearly for their medicines again.”
In this claim, the RTL (Croatian TV channel which is part of the RTL group) anchor Zoran Šprajc, used his role as a host of the popular news show, to speculate on the basis of the president Trump’s claims in which he accused pharmaceutical industry Pfizer for waiting on purpose with the results, although it was him who invested in the research of vaccine through the operation Warp Speed.
Pfizer and BioNTech released the first results of a study on the COVID-19 vaccine on November 9th, confirming that the results of the group that received the vaccine compared to the one that received placebo were positive in more than 90 percent of cases.
As the results of the third phase were announced some days after the US election held on 3rd November, the press release was a trigger for the series of attacks coming from President Trump who refused acknowledging Joe Biden’s victory.
Furthermore, the vaccine announcement was a trigger for number of President Trump’s posts attacking pharmaceutical company Pfizer and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which could be found on Trump’s Twitter profile. One of them is: “As I have long said, @Pfizer and the others would only announce a Vaccine after the Election, because they didn’t have the courage to do it before. Likewise, the @US_FDA should have announced it earlier, not for political purposes, but for saving lives! None of Trump’s tweets are evidence-based.
It is important to mention that President Trump often repeated in public that the vaccine would be ready for use before the election. This could be interpreted as an attempt to secure more votes in his favour.
Also, his daughter Ivanka Trump, his son, Donald Trump Jr., Vice President Mike Pence, and radio host Mark Levin were among those publicly celebrating the news about the vaccine as a victory of president’s Operation Warp Speed. Mike Pence tweeted that the news about vaccine came “thanks to the public-private partnership forged” by Mr Trump.
Warp Speed is an agreement between US government and pharmaceutical companies in order to facilitate and accelerate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. In July, it was announced that up to $1.95 billion in funds will be given to Pfizer for the large-scale manufacturing and nationwide distribution of 100 million doses of their vaccine candidate. According to Business Insider, that means that Warp Speed bought 100 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccines before the results came in.
Still, on 8th November, Pfizer claimed it wasn’t part of the operation. “We were never part of the Warp Speed,” the Pfizer Vice President Kathrin Jansen said to New York Times “We have never taken any money from the U.S. government, or from anyone.”
After Pfizer’s initial claim to the New York Times that it had never been part of Operation Warp Speed, Pfizer Spokesperson Sharon Castello’s email statement to CNN says it is not entirely true. „”Pfizer is one of various vaccine manufacturers participating in Operation Warp Speed as a supplier of a potential COVID-19 vaccine,” Castillo said: “While Pfizer did reach an advanced purchase agreement with the U.S. government, the company did not accept (Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority) funding for the research and development process. All the investment for R&D was made by Pfizer at risk. Dr Jansen was emphasizing that last point.”
Although it is true that they signed a distribution agreement with the US government for the purpose of improving availability of vaccines, Pfizer said they invested their own money into research. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla explained the reason behind that decision for CBS News on 13th September for not taking US tax-payers money for the research: “The reason why I did it was because I wanted to liberate our scientists from any bureaucracy. When you get money from someone that always comes with strings. They want to see how we are going to progress, what type of moves you are going to do. They want reports. I didn’t want to have any of that. I wanted them- basically I gave them an open checkbook so that they can worry only about scientific challenges, not anything else. And also, I wanted to keep Pfizer out of politics, by the way”.
Also on the 13th of November, President Trump gave an update on the Operation Warp Speed, still insisting that Pfizer was misinterpreting the fact: “Pfizer said it wasn’t part of Warp Speed, but that turned out to be a unfortunate misrepresentation. They are part. That’s why we gave them the $1.95 million — billion dollars. And it was an unfortunate mistake that they made when they said that.“
Even though Pfizer stuck to the fact that they never took US federal money for the research, it was not entirely true that they were not part of the Operation Speed at all. Obviously, there is more nuance in the Pfizer – US Government relationship. According to the CNN Factcheck, if the company had a major agreement to sell at least 100 doses of its vaccine to the federal government and Pfizer acknowledged, this can be be interpreted as „participating“ in Operation Warp Speed through this deal. But this doesn’t prove the assumption that Pfizer and BioNTech waited on purpose.
Those who think that Pfizer was waiting to announce the results after the election, also rely on earlier statements by Pfizer CEO Albert Burla. In an interview with the NBC Today Show on 8th September, Bourla said that that Pfizer would only submit a vaccine for authorization “when we have evidence of safety and efficacy.” He predicted that Pfizer would have an answer by the end of October 2020. On 27th October Burla ruled out that they would have a vaccine ready before election date. According to Burla, they still lacked trial data and had not yet reached the number of 32 cases out of 44.000 participants reported cases of infection among participants. These data arrived on 5th or 6th November, and then an independent committee of experts analyzed all the characteristics of the vaccine and the data obtained from the research.
On 18th November, at the New York Times press conference, almost 2 weeks after the US election, CEO Burla stated clearly “We didn’t conspire with anyone. (…) We didn’t delay vaccine results until after elections”.
To verify the claim, on 11th November, the online publication Science, made a factcheck on all steps in the process and found no evidence for claims that vaccine result was surpressed to sway elections.
Another speculation linked to the claim we are factchecking, is given in the same intro by the RTL Direkt host Mr Zoran Šprajc. He says that the reason for the delay of the vaccine announcement is the fact that Trump’s administration forced the U.S. pharmaceutical industry to lower drug prices and thus knocked out billions of dollars in profits. for this, according to Mr Šprajc, they didn’t want to announce the news on the eve of the election. The anchor then speculates that the new US administration would return the favor to the pharmaceutical industry by rising drug prices again.
According to some factchecks quoted by NBC news, there’s no evidence that Trump’s policies have meaningfully lowered drug prices, as he has repeatedly claimed. The RTL Direkt anchor made a speculation that Pfizer waited to announce the vaccine results because they expected the financial award from the new US Government. The comment was not based on any previous research. Also, no TV story followed this introduction by the anchor that would give more information and background for Mr Šprajc’s claims.
The comment given in the RTL Direkt news by the prominent anchor Zoran Šprajc is therefore false. Pfizer clearly stated the reasons for announcing the results on that particular day and the company distanced itself from political influence. With all speculative hints of Trump and his supporters on Twitter, it can be dangerous to pass on a story without checking facts. Pfizer explained even before the election day that the result of the research could be delayed and there was no reason to link them to political calculations. Even more, the host of the show used his position to make further speculations assuming that the reasons for the delay is the pharmaceutical industry expectations that the new US Government would award them with the rise of the drug prices.
For the host of one of the most watched news shows in the country it is irresponsible to make such assumption without any backup. RTL Direkt news show has a wide audience and the comments of the popular host are often shared. After the show, many smaller web portals and social networks published and shared the video with Zoran Šprajc’s comment. Such speculations can create a stigmatized image of the new vaccine and jeopardize the already shaken public confidence in the pharmaceutical industry caused by numerous conspiracy theories.
RESEARCH | ARTICLE © Vera Kadijević & Josipa Mandurić