The bringing forward of millions of Pfizer vaccine doses last week followed a back channels intervention eight days earlier by a high-powered network which included a senior business figure despairing of the government’s failure to secure enough vaccine supplies, and a former prime minister.
The revelation comes amid continuing controversy, and conflicting reports, about delays and shortcomings in Australia’s vaccine supplies, and why Australia is currently only contracted for 40 million Pfizer doses this year.
With changing health advice about the AstraZeneca vaccine, Pfizer is the preferred vaccine for Australians under 60 until they are supplemented with supplies of the Moderna vaccine later in the year.
A spokesman for Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Sunday that the bring forward was a result of government negotiations conducted with Pfizer Australia.
In late June, senior Australian business figures based in the United States had discussed making contact with the vaccine manufacturer Pfizer to see whether it was possible for Australia to get earlier access to larger supplies of the Pfizer vaccine as the COVID-19 Delta variant emerged in Australia.
This came amid continuing reports that Australia had bungled its negotiations with the company in talks going back to June and July last year which displayed a “rude, dismissive and penny pinching” approach, according to one source.
Australia eventually signed a deal for just 10 million Pfizer doses in November 2020, four months behind other countries.
Health Department officials have flatly denied many of these reports, but the businessmen in the US who had connections with Pfizer were hearing even more graphic accounts of how badly offended the company had been by the response to its early approaches to Australia last year when it offered access to what is now to be a crucial part of our vaccine coverage.
As a result, one very senior Australian businessman, whose identity is known to the ABC but who wishes to remain anonymous, held two meetings with senior Pfizer executives in late June, only to be rebuffed.
Senior Pfizer executives told the businessman that if Australia was to make a more serious effort, after its treatment at the hands of relatively junior bureaucrats, it would have to come from much higher up, expressing their astonishment that Prime Minister Scott Morrison had not directly spoken to the Pfizer chairman and chief executive Albert Bourla, as former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had done on multiple occasions.
The executives suggested that, in the absence of Mr Morrison, former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd – who was known to them because of his work in the United States as head of the New York-based Asia Society – may have some influence.
The network of businessmen contacted Mr Rudd and set up an introduction to Dr Bourla. A Zoom meeting was arranged on June 30. Mr Rudd sent a text a message to Mr Morrison to tell him he was going to make the call, making clear he would be representing himself as a concerned Australian and not in any way as an emissary from the government.
In a letter to the PM, obtained by the ABC, Mr Rudd subsequently reported to Mr Morrison on June 30 that, on the call, he had congratulated Dr Bourla on Pfizer’s success in producing the world-class vaccine and discussed various challenges and political pressures it faced around the world regarding distribution and intellectual property waivers.
“I also used the call as an opportunity to ask Dr Bourla whether there was any possible way, given Pfizer’s current international contractual obligations, to advance the dispatch of significant quantities of the Pfizer vaccine to Australia as early as possible in the third quarter this year,” Mr Rudd told Mr Morrison in the letter.
“My understanding was that there were current contractual arrangements with the Australian government to deliver a total 40 million doses by the end of 2021. I did so not as a representative of the Australian government, but purely in my private capacity as an Australian citizen who cares for his country’s wellbeing.
“Dr Bourla indicated that they had limited flexibility because of their existing supply obligations around the world. Nonetheless, he also indicated that a number of their manufacturing facilities were producing ahead of schedule. In response to my representations, Dr Bourla said he would personally look at “what further might be able to be done. I thanked Dr Bourla for that.
“Dr Bourla indicated that, if it became physically possible to bring forward delivery, he would require a further formal contractual request from the Australian government to that effect. I replied that that was understandable. I added, of course, that would be a matter for the Australian government and that I would pass this on to you.
“Speaking on my own initiative, I floated the possibility of Australia perhaps seeking a large-scale advance order of Pfizer’s 2022 vaccine “booster” which, from what I have read, is still under development.
“I speculated that it might perhaps be possible for the Australian government to consider a commercial offer for the 2022 booster that would also incorporate a bringing-forward of the current order for the 2021 vaccine into the early part of the third quarter of this year.
“Once again, I emphasised to Dr Bourla that this was speculation on my own part, rather than me acting in any way on behalf of the Australian government.
“As Dr Bourla lives in New York, we also agreed to catch up when I return there later this year.”
With no news emerging of a bring forward, Mr Rudd subsequently called Treasurer Josh Frydenberg a few days later to make sure that he was aware of the conversation.
A week later, and facing trenchant criticism from state governments about shortages of vaccine supply, and the alarming outbreak of the Delta variant which has now locked down Sydney for an unknown period, Mr Morrison initially announced on Thursday that there would be an additional 300,000 doses of vaccines – including 150,000 from Pfizer – made available to New South Wales.
A story subsequently appeared in The Australian newspaper that evening saying the federal government had secured a deal with Pfizer to lift supply to approximately 1 million doses a week, three times the weekly average of 300,000 to 350,000 a week in May and June.
Mr Morrison conducted an early morning media blitz the following morning, telling the Nine Network’s Today show on Friday:
“We have been working with Pfizer now for quite some period of time to bring forward our supplies – I commend Minister [Greg] Hunt and Professor [Brendan] Murphy and Lieutenant General [John] Frewen for the great job getting those supplies brought forward.”
Pfizer subsequently released a statement confirming the bring forward but emphasising it did not involve an overall increase in the contracted 40 million doses agreed with Australia.
Guardian Australia reported on the weekend Pfizer’s former president of global R&D, John LaMattina, saying Australia’s delay in securing a deal with Pfizer, while “unfortunate”, was understandable because its success in containing COVID-19 had afforded it more time than others.
But the amount Australia eventually secured in November was “clearly lacking” and “unconscionable”, Guardian reported him as saying.
“Once the amazing and unprecedented efficacy of the mRNA vaccines was established, ordering a mere 10 million doses was unconscionable,” he said.
“When both Pfizer and Moderna demonstrated the potent efficacy of their vaccines, every country should immediately have reached out to these companies to place their orders.
“In the case of Australia, enough vaccine to inoculate its entire population over the age of 18 should have been done at once. Assuming that is about 20 million Australians, this would have cost about US$780 million (AU$1.04 billion).
“How much has Australia spent on COVID-19 relief packages?”
PM met with Pfizer Australia execs on numerous occasions
A spokesperson for Health Minister Greg Hunt told 7.30 on Sunday:
“The Australian government at all levels have been proactively and continuously engaged directly with Pfizer throughout the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
“As part of this process, the minister has met with the Pfizer Australia country head Anne Harris on multiple occasions with a view to the announcement Friday on the timeframe achieved and at the level we had hoped for, which was the maximum that Pfizer had indicated might be available.
“While we were made aware of Mr Rudd’s approach, we are not aware this approach had any impact on the outcome.
“The Horizons document released in June referred to the expected base of 600,000 doses per week in August up to the one million per week figure which was achieved on an ongoing basis and we thank Pfizer for their continued support.
“We appreciate all contributions from those outside of government, even if they made no material difference to the outcome.”
Government sources said Mr Morrison had been in touch with Pfizer executives in Australia on numerous occasions to discuss the rollout.
Asked whether the bring forward of existing commitments was the only contract variation made with Pfizer last week and whether Australia committed to a large-scale advance order of Pfizer’s 2022 vaccine booster, which is still under development, a spokesman for the Prime Minister said answers to those questions were still commercial in confidence at this stage.
A spokeswoman for Pfizer in Australia said that time differences meant a response to a matter involving Dr Bourla – who resides in the US – would not be available before Monday.
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