Pfizer Calls the Shots When It Comes to Government Vaccine Contracts

By Victor Westerkamp | October 23, 2021
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Kalamazoo Manufacturing Site-Joe Biden-Albert Bourla-Pfizer-Getty-Images-1231265811
US President Joe Biden listens to Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla speak at the Pfizer Kalamazoo Manufacturing Site in Portage, Michigan, on Feb. 19, 2021. (Image: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Pharma giant Pfizer-BioNTech reportedly dictates the governmental vaccine deals it engages in. According to a consumer rights watchdog report, the company has the power to influence governments, supply chains, and consumers.

The common theme of these contracts is that they “consistently place Pfizer’s interests before public health imperatives,” wrote Zain Rizvi, author of the report and a law and policy researcher at Public Citizen, a consumer rights advocacy group.

“The contracts offer a rare glimpse into the power one pharmaceutical corporation has gained to silence governments, throttle supply, shift risk and maximize profits in the worst public health crisis in a century,” Rizvi states.

So far, Pfizer has engaged in at least 73 Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) vaccine agreements with national governments. The consumer rights organization obtained settlements arranged with nine countries: the US, UK, Albania, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Dominican Republic, European Commission, and Peru. 

Seven of the unredacted contracts were calculated to be worth more than 5 billion dollars. In addition, confidentiality clauses were included to prevent governments from making “‘any public announcement concerning the existence, subject matter or terms of [the] Agreement’ or commenting on its relationship with Pfizer without the prior written consent of the company.”

Sharon Castillo, a spokeswoman for Pfizer, said that confidentiality clauses were “standard in commercial contracts” and “intended to help build trust between the parties, as well as protect the confidential commercial information exchanged during negotiations and included in final contracts,” The Washington Post reported.

That opinion is not shared by everyone, however. “Hiding contracts from public view or publishing documents filled with redacted text means we don’t know how or when vaccines will arrive, what happens if things go wrong, and the level of financial risk buyers are absorbing,” said Tom Wright, research manager at the Transparency International Health Program.

For example, the covenant reached with the Brazilian government prohibits the government from making “any public announcement concerning the existence, subject matter or terms of [the] agreement.”

Furthermore, at least four countries are required “to indemnify, defend and hold harmless Pfizer” from and against any and all suits, claims, actions, demands, damages, costs, and expenses related to vaccine intellectual property. Meaning Pfizer can use anyone’s intellectual property it pleases—practically without consequence.

In countries like Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic, the government “expressly and irrevocably waives any right of immunity which either it or its assets may have or acquire in the future” to enforce any arbitration award, the report reads. For the first four countries, this may include “immunity against precautionary seizure of any of its assets.”

For instance, in the case of the US, state assets might include assets consisting of foreign bank accounts, foreign investments, and foreign commercial property, including the assets of state-owned enterprises like airlines and oil companies.

The pharma giant is also imposing stringent regulations on its clients regarding donating, selling, or buying vaccines from entities other than Pfizer.

In the case of Brazil, violating these terms would mean “an ‘uncurable material breach’ of their agreement, allowing Pfizer to immediately terminate the agreement. Upon termination, Brazil would be required to pay the full price for any remaining contracted doses,” the report said.

Transparency International, a London-based advocacy group, argued that at least four contracts or drafts it examined went “much further” than other vaccine developers, with “more of the risk onto national governments, and away from the developer, even if missteps are made by the developer or supply chain partners, and not just if there is a rare adverse effect of the vaccines.”

In short, “the global community cannot allow pharmaceutical corporations to keep calling the shots,” Rizvi told The Washington Post. He hoped that the “Biden administration can step up and balance the scales.”