Chris Bowen says other countries struck deals for a billion doses of the Pfizer vaccine before Australia signed its agreement. Is he correct?

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The claim

The first doses of Australia’s COVID-19 vaccination program have at last been administered, but concerns have been expressed that the rollout will be slowed by supply constraints.

In announcing Australia’s November deal with Pfizer to supply 10 million doses of its vaccine, Prime Minister Scott Morrison claimed the agreement, along with another deal signed with Novavax for 50 million doses, had put Australia at “the front of the queue”.

But, in January, the Opposition accused the Government of being slow to make deals, and that this would affect supply of the drug.

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“[B]y the time the Morrison Government did a deal with Pfizer, a billion doses had already been accounted for around the world. Australia wasn’t at the front of the queue — we’re at the back,” then opposition spokesman for health Chris Bowen said.

Were 1 billion doses of Pfizer’s vaccine already accounted for in deals with other countries before the Government made its deal in November? RMIT ABC Fact Check investigates.

The verdict

Mr Bowen’s claim is drawing a long bow.

A definitive list of the deals made between Pfizer and various countries for its vaccine is not publicly available.

But a tally compiled from government and corporate media releases suggests around 350 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine were accounted for in pre-purchase agreements before Australia announced its deal on November 5.

Mr Bowen’s suggested tally of 1 billion doses would only be reached if so-called “optional” doses were included, as well as a deal with the European Union for 200 million pre-purchased doses and 100 million optional doses.

A gloved hand holds up a small vial of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine
There are caveats on Mr Bowen’s tally of 1 billion doses.(AP: Mike Morones)

But the inclusion of these numbers comes with significant caveats, and experts contacted by Fact Check expressed mixed views about whether or not they should be included.

They said the EU deal should only be included in the overall tally if it had been finalised on September 9, when the bloc and Pfizer “concluded exploratory talks”, rather than on November 11, when the contract was finally approved.

A larger issue is the inclusion of optional doses, which some experts said were different to pre-purchased doses and could not be relied upon as being “accounted for”.

These optional doses make up over half of the tally to November 5, even when the EU deal is included.

Thus, Mr Bowen’s claim lacked the necessary context to allow audiences to understand the true status of more than half the doses in his count of 1 billion.

Background on Pfizer’s vaccine

A multitude of vaccines seeking to curb the prevalence of COVID-19 disease in humans are at various stages of development, but few have received the kind of attention as that of Pfizer’s candidate.

As the first wave of the pandemic swept the world, the pharmaceutical giant announced it was teaming up with German biotech firm BioNTech to develop and manufacture a vaccine candidate “based on BioNTech’s proprietary mRNA vaccine platforms, with the objective of ensuring rapid worldwide access to the vaccine, if approved”.

In November, Pfizer announced that results from its phase 3 trial of the drug showed a 95 per cent success rate in preventing COVID-19 disease in people seven days after they were given two doses of the drug.

This was followed by the issuing of an emergency use authorisation in December in the UK, a world first for a COVID-19 vaccine candidate. Further authorisations followed quickly in a slew of other countries.

Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) provisionally approved Pfizer’s vaccine for use on January 25, 2021, meaning it can now be legally supplied in Australia “to prevent coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), caused by SARS-CoV-2, in individuals 16 years of age and older”.

Temperature gauge showing minus 76.3 degrees Celcius.
Pfizer’s vaccine needs to be stored at freezing temperatures.(ABC News: Alison Xiao)

Australia’s deal with Pfizer

On November 5, 2020, the Government announced it had reached a deal with Pfizer/BioNTech for the supply of 10 million doses of its vaccine to Australia, subject to regulatory approval.

As previously mentioned, the vaccine requires two doses, spread out over a number of weeks, to be effective, meaning the deal would provide enough vaccine to inoculate 5 million Australians.

At the time of the deal, no mention was made of any option being included in the contract to purchase further doses.

Mr Bowen made his claim on January 23.

The Government has since secured a further 10 million doses of the vaccine, bringing the total to 20 million.

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison announces a deal with Pfizer for an additional 10 million doses of its vaccine.

Context of the claim

Mr Bowen is not the only Labor figure to have made this claim.

During a press conference two days after Mr Bowen’s, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese criticised the speed of the Government’s Pfizer vaccine rollout, attributing it to the timing of the deal.

“If the Morrison Government had secured the Pfizer deal before other countries had secured 1 billion doses of their own, maybe the Government would have more than one in five Australians being looked after by this vaccine,” he said.

And in a Senate inquiry into the Government’s response to COVID-19 several days later, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Kristina Keneally, asked Pfizer’s director of market access, Louise Graham:

“Let me then ask you the question this way: my understanding is that by the point the deal was announced on 5 November, Pfizer had already done deals for around one billion doses with 34 countries; is that correct?”

Ms Graham stopped short of confirming Senator Keneally’s figure, stating:

“By that point, yes, there were a range of deals and contracts already in place. Australia came online in November.”

Fact Check contacted Mr Bowen’s office to ask for the source of his claim.

A spokeswoman confirmed that his reference to 1 billion doses pertained to the Pfizer vaccine alone, and provided a chronology of vaccine deals made between countries and various vaccine manufacturers, sourced from an article on pharmaceutical industry website Bio Pharma Dispatch.

Entries relating to the Pfizer vaccine on or before November 5 were:

Date Entry
July 20, 2020 UK secures 40 million doses of Pfizer-BioNTech (financial terms undisclosed)
July 22, 2020 US commits US$1.95 billion to Pfizer-BioNTech for 600 million doses
July 31, 2020 Japan deal with Pfizer-BioNTech for 120 million doses
August 31, 2020 Canada  … 20 million Pfizer [doses]
September 9, 2020 Pfizer and BioNTech close to finalising 200 million dose deal with the European Union
September 15, 2020 Germany invests US$445 million in the development of Pfizer-BioNTech
September 18, 2020 BioNTech acquires manufacturing facility from Novartis to produce 750 million doses per year
October 10, 2020 New Zealand secures 1.5 million doses of Pfizer
October 18, 2020 Mexico secures 90 million doses of three vaccines, [including] Pfizer 
November 5, 2020 Australia secures 10 million doses of Pfizer and 40 million doses of Novavax

While the doses mentioned in these entries do indeed total almost 1 billion, the status of the deals listed remains unclear without the confirmation of primary sources.

Deal or no deal?

Fact Check contacted Pfizer seeking a list of vaccine deals by country, but a spokeswoman declined to provide details, citing confidentiality.

Further, there appears to be no publicly available, definitive source for vaccine deals made between countries and pharmaceutical companies, including the number of doses secured and the date of such agreements.

Nonetheless, there are some groups which have sought to track and quantify these measures using a variety of sources.

UNICEF’s COVID-19 Vaccine Market Dashboard relies principally on media reports for its database, which is updated regularly.

Elsewhere, a study published in the British Medical Journal attempted to collate and quantify all advance purchase agreements made by governments up to November 15, 2020, using the “World Health Organisation’s draft landscape of covid-19 candidate vaccines, along with company disclosures to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, company and foundation press releases, government press releases, and media reports”.

A sign with the Pfizer logo stands outside the corporate headquarters building.
Pfizer made a range of deals with a variety of countries before it made a deal with Australia on November 5, 2020.(AP: Ryan Remiorz)

That study had a cut-off date of November 15. Its supporting material listed deals made by 11 countries plus the European Union for a total of 512.4 million doses, excluding Australia’s November 5 deal for 10 million doses.

Meanwhile, researchers at Duke University’s Global Health Innovation Center, which runs Launch and Scale Speedometer, supplied Fact Check with its database of vaccine deals, which is based on publicly available information.

These sources would obviously not include deals that had been kept secret.

However, Adam Kamradt-Scott, a global health security expert at Sydney University, told Fact Check that while some governments considered agreements such as these to be an issue of national security, there was a powerful incentive to publicise them during a global pandemic.

“In the current pandemic there is an obvious incentive for governments to announce they’ve made an agreement, which is why we have lists being composed by organisations … as it reinforces the message that governments are concerned for the wellbeing of their citizens,” he told Fact Check in an email.

“But it is rare for much more information to come to light about the nature of these deals because governments get concerned that after signing the agreement, another country might come in over the top and offer more money to get ahead of the queue.”



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