New emails reveal how ‘enthusiastic’ Pfizer was to engage with Australia about its COVID-19 vaccine, months before the federal government agreed to buy any doses.
Doses were in limited supply during the deadly outbreaks in Victoria and New South Wales this year.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is now central to the nation’s effort to combat the virus, despite Australia being slower than other nations in purchasing the jab.
Documents obtained by 7.30 under freedom of information (FOI) laws shed new light on the drug company and the government’s dealings at a critical time for negotiations last year.
In early July 2020, Pfizer Australia emailed the office of health minister Greg Hunt with “some positive early data” from early stage trials.
“Efforts to manufacture the leading candidates … are gearing up,” they wrote.
“My global colleagues are enthusiastic to discuss this further, and possible opportunities in Australia, at a senior level at the earliest opportunity.”
Someone in the minister’s office forwarded this email to the head of the Health Department’s vaccine taskforce, Lisa Schofield, adding only: “FYI.”
Pfizer asked for meeting at ‘earliest opportunity’
Days earlier, Pfizer Australia’s boss, Anne Harris, wrote to Mr Hunt to begin formal talks and request a meeting about COVID-19 vaccines.
“We have the potential to supply millions of vaccine doses by the end of 2020 … then rapidly scale up to produce hundreds of millions of doses in 2021,” Ms Harris wrote, in correspondence previously released.
“[A colleague] will be in touch to schedule a meeting. I look forward to meeting you and working with you into the future.”
Ms Harris’s letter was contained in an email from a Pfizer colleague, which asked for “this meeting occur at the earliest opportunity”.
“The vaccine development landscape is moving swiftly, including through engagements with other nations.
“I am able to make senior members of Pfizer’s global leadership team available for this discussion, particularly if the minister and/or departmental leadership can be involved.”
Two days after receiving the letter, which has previously been released under FOI, someone in the minister’s office forwarded the letter to the head of the department’s vaccine taskforce.
“FYI – will leave it to you on this one,” the person wrote in a newly released email.
Nations began announcing vaccine deals with Pfizer later in July 2020, including the United States and the United Kingdom.
Australia announced an initial agreement with Pfizer in November, purchasing 10 million doses to be delivered “from early to mid-2021”.
The government indicated at the time that Pfizer’s vaccine would be used to supplement AstraZeneca supplies.
Australia has subsequently ordered millions more Pfizer shots.
In a statement, the health minister’s office said it had participated in 10 meetings with Pfizer between July and October.
Mr Hunt personally attended a meeting with Pfizer a week before the November agreement.
A spokeswoman said the government struck an agreement with Pfizer “as soon as possible” and that “no earlier doses were available to Australia”.
The initial agreement was announced in early November 2020 before the full agreement was formalised on 24 December, Pfizer previously told a Senate Committee.
At least six nations — including Israel, Canada and Saudi Arabia — had begun administering Pfizer doses before that formal deal was struck.
Pfizer not listed amongst vaccines being monitored
In further documents released to the ABC from July last year, the vaccine taskforce emailed the minister’s office with a “status update on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments”.
“There are currently over 190 vaccine candidates in development, including 17 in clinical trials,” they wrote.
The document detailed five vaccines that were conducting clinical trials in Australia before outlining a snapshot of “other candidates being monitored”.
That list included just two vaccines — the Oxford-AstraZeneca candidate and Moderna’s mRNA jab — and did not mention Pfizer’s candidate.
Australia announced a deal with AstraZeneca in August 2020, but earlier this year it was recommended only for people over 60 after safety concerns emerged, plunging the vaccine rollout into further trouble at the time.
More than 88 per cent of people over 16 in Australia are now double vaccinated.
“Australia has world-leading vaccination rates at 92.9 per cent of people over 16 having received a first dose, and as high as 98 per cent of people over 70 fully vaccinated,” the minister’s office said in a statement.
“This represents one of the highest vaccination rates in the OECD.”
© 2020 Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.
ABC Content Disclaimer