FOI emails question Morrison government speed in Australia's Pfizer vaccine deal

Health Minister Greg Hunt. Picture: Elesa Kurtz
Health Minister Greg Hunt. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Health Minister Greg Hunt denies the government was slow to act on COVID vaccination procurement despite correspondence showing urgent appeals from Pfizer in mid-2020 to meet him were put off for more than a month, and weeks after the US and UK signed massive deals.

Emails from June and early July last year, obtained by Labor under the Freedom of Information Act, show the pharmaceutical giant eager to meet the minister "at the earliest opportunity", but the Department of Health instead offered the company a meeting with a first assistant secretary.

Pfizer made clear it had the "potential to supply millions of vaccine" globally which could "be deployed at unprecedented speed" to prevent Infections.

Australia signed the first contract with Pfizer for 10 million doses Australia in November. The the first Pfizer doses arrived mid-February 2021. Nations such as the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom signed multi-million dose deals with Pfizer in July.

The emails show the offer was passed onto the department from Mr Hunt's office as a way of introduction. It was not until August 4 that anyone from Mr Hunt's office formally met the company over COVID vaccinations.

A spokesman for Mr Hunt said the emails were not evidence the government was slow to act.

"The department has been actively engaged with Pfizer since very early in the pandemic," the spokesman said.

"These discussions have been extensive and co-operative."

The Health Minister's office says there had been "constant informal engagements" prior to the emails provided under FOI. According to the spokesman, Pfizer had advised that it was "not allowed to commence formal negotiations at that time".

But the Labor's health spokesman Mark Butler said the emails showed a deliberate "wait and see" approach to vaccine deals.

"While other countries were signing Pfizer deals, our government couldn't even be bothered arranging a meeting," he said.

"Australians are paying the price of Scott Morrison's incompetence; we have more people in lockdown and fewer people fully vaccinated than any other developed country."

The letters and emails, which have been on the Health Department's website since August 16, show a Pfizer Australia representative writing to Mr Hunt on June 30, to advise the company was working in collaboration with BioNTech to develop, test and manufacture an mRNA-base vaccine.

"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 Pfizer representative said.

The offer refers to Pfizer's global production capacity.

The company sought a comprehensive first meeting between Mr Hunt or departmental leadership with the company's global head of vaccines "at the earliest opportunity".

Three days later, on July 3, Health Department assistant first secretary Lisa Schofield replied saying the correspondence had been passed on to the Health Minister, and she would "appreciate the opportunity" to talk to the company about its vaccine work.

The department's first formal meeting with Pfizer was on July 10. Mr Hunt's office says this was after Pfizer wrote to the government advising it was now in a position to engage formally.

Mr Hunt's office said there were been many informal engagements before the first meeting and many formal meetings and other engagements since.

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But the documents also revealed that Pfizer offered a highly detailed mRNA vaccine briefing, but only if the Health Department representatives signed a confidentiality agreement first (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," a July 6 email 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."

The emails show the two parties negotiating the CDAs throughout July. The Health Minister's representatives met with Pfizer on August 4 and Australia's deal was struck in November, several months after the US, UK and Canada.

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This story FOI reveals Greg Hunt's first Pfizer meeting weeks after US, UK deals first appeared on The Canberra Times.