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Federal bureaucrats turned down an offer from pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in mid-2020 for a detailed meeting with top executives and the Health Minister about the company’s progress on a coronavirus vaccine, as other countries were already on track to signing deals for millions of doses.
Documents from June and early July last year released under the Freedom of Information Act show the company was eager to meet “at the earliest opportunity”, but received a response from the Department of Health days later offering a meeting with a first assistant secretary instead.
The Health Minister’s officer first met with Pfizer on August 4, after the US and UK had already signed deals for millions of doses.Credit:Meredith O’Shea
Australia signed its first contract with Pfizer in November, for 10 million doses. Other countries, including the US and Canada, had signed deals with the pharmaceutical giant as early as July that year.
In a letter to Health Minister Greg Hunt dated June 30, a Pfizer Australia representative said the company was working in collaboration with BioNTech to develop, test and manufacture an mRNA-base vaccine that could potentially “be deployed at unprecedented speed” to prevent COVID-19 infections.
“We have the potential to supply millions of vaccine doses by the end of 2020, subject to technical success and regulatory approvals, then rapidly scale up to produce hundreds of millions of doses in 2021,” the letter said.
The documents obtained by Labor show the company suggested a comprehensive first meeting between Health Minister Greg Hunt or departmental leadership with the company’s global head of vaccines “at the earliest opportunity”.
Three days later, Health Department assistant first secretary Lisa Schofield replied saying the letter had been passed on to the health minister, and she would appreciate the opportunity to talk to the company about its vaccine work.
The first meeting was scheduled for July 10. Ms Schofield told a Senate COVID-19 committee hearing earlier this year no offer for doses was put on the table at that meeting, and it was a more general discussion about where the company was at in the process.
But the documents reveal Pfizer was willing to provide a more detailed outline of the company’s approach in that meeting, if the Commonwealth representatives signed confidential disclosure agreements (CDAs).
“If we can get this signed ahead of Friday’s meeting then we will include several senior Global Pfizer colleagues on the call to be able to provide the detail you may be seeking on a range [of] issues,” the email dated July 6 said.
“Alternatively we are happy to treat this Friday as just an exploratory/introductory meeting without the CDA, in which case it will be limited to my Australian colleagues.”
A follow-up email the next day suggested a “highly detailed” slide deck could be included if the non-disclosure was signed, so the company could run Australia through the development and trial process.
“I am assuming a postponement to next week to enable time to review and sign the CDA, and find an appropriate time slot, is most likely but my local colleagues are keeping 10.30am on Friday free nonetheless,” the July 7 email from Pfizer said.
In response, Ms Schofield said the government was considering the non-disclosure agreements but would stick to the introductory meeting as planned.
Labor’s health spokesman Mark Butler said Australia has suffered because of the slow pace of the vaccine rollout.
“The vaccine rollout was always a race, but Australia started a lap behind because Scott Morrison’s government took a deliberate “wait and see” approach to vaccine deals,” he said.
“While other countries were signing Pfizer deals, our government couldn’t even be bothered arranging a meeting.”
Legal representatives from Pfizer and the Commonwealth were still hashing out the non-disclosure agreement when a company representative noted in an email on July 23 that the US and UK had already signed deals for doses. The US ordered an initial 100 million doses on July 22, and the UK signed a deal for 30 million doses on July 20.
Representatives from the Health Minister’s office first met with Pfizer on August 4. Mr Hunt’s office has been contacted for comment.
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