Pfizer accused of 'bringing discredit' on industry with 'unnecessary' vaccine tweet

By Isabel Cameron

- Last updated on GMT

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Related tags Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine COVID-19 Vaccine Social media

Pfizer has been accused of ‘bringing discredit’ on the pharma industry after senior employees promoted its ‘unlicensed’ COVID-19 vaccine through social media at the height of the pandemic.

Pharmaceutical watchdog, the Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority (PMCPA), found that the pharma giant promoted unlicensed medicines and violated its regulatory code five times.

Back in 2020, Dr Berkley Phillips, medical director of Pfizer UK, retweeted a post on X from a US employee which stated: ‘Our vaccine candidate is 95 per cent effective in preventing COVID-19, and 94 per cent effective in people over 65 years old. We will file all of our data with health authorities within days. Thank you to every volunteer in our trial, and to all who are tirelessly fighting this pandemic’.

The post was also re-shared by four other UK employees at the company.

However, the PMCPA ruled that the post had ‘limited’ information about the vaccine’s efficacy, no reference to adverse events and no safety information.

Therefore, the message resulted in an ‘unlicensed medicine being proactively disseminated on Twitter to health professions and members of the public in the UK’ the regulatory body said.

As a result of the misjudged tweets, Pfizer was charged £34,800 in administrative costs.

But, how much damage has this done to Pfizer's reputation? Will it trigger internal changes at the drugmaker and does it indicate a wider problem in the industry? 

While Dr. Ila Bhatia, consultant and social media expert for the life sciences and healthcare industry, describes the event as ‘less than ideal’ – ‘it is important to note that it was a few employees sharing posts and such information was not shared from Pfizer’s official handles’.

“Pfizer and its employees should indeed be more responsible in posting on social media platforms considering it’s a very well-known brand with a global presence. Such events lead to poor public perception, not just for the company and its brand but also the industry as a whole,” she tells Bio Pharma Reporter.

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This initial complaint prompted the PMCPA to further investigate Pfizer’s ‘misuse of social media to misleadingly and illegally promote their COVID-19​ vaccine’ the ruling said.

It found that this social media ‘misbehaviour’ was ‘even more widespread’ than initially estimated, extending ‘right to the top of their UK operation’.

In response, a Pfizer UK spokesman said the company is ‘deeply sorry’ and ‘fully recognises and accepts the issues highlighted by this PMCPA ruling’.

“Pfizer UK has a comprehensive policy on personal use of social media in relation to Pfizer’s business which prohibits colleagues from interacting with any social media related to Pfizer’s medicines and vaccines – backed by staff briefings and training,” the company said.

“The personal use of social media by UK pharmaceutical industry employees in relation to company business is a challenging area for pharmaceutical companies, in which we continue to take all of the appropriate steps that are reasonably expected of a pharmaceutical company.”

The drugmaker also said it was conducting a review into employees’ social media​ use to avoid future regulatory missteps.

Dr Phillips, the employee at the heart of the issue, said his retweet was ‘accidental and unintentional’.

“That said, we immediately accepted the case ruling and do everything we can to ensure that our employees adhere to our strict social media policy and the industry Code of Practice when using their personal social media,” he added.

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As someone who has worked in clinical research for years, Olga Peycheva, managing director at Solutions OP, can ‘understand the excitement to share positive news about a clinical trial’.

“I believe the employees probably never considered that this will be considered as advertising. The reason for this is that companies do not provide training on advertising to their clinical operation staff and this is something reserved for their sales teams only,” she tells Bio Pharma Reporter.

“Personally, I hope Pfizer will see this training gap and help their clinical operation employees better understand the complications of their social media activities.”

However, Ben Kingsley, head of legal affairs at UsForThem, had a less forgiving perspective, commenting: "It’s astonishing how many times Pfizer’s senior executives have been found guilty of serious regulatory offences – in this case including the most serious offence of all under the UK Code of Practice.

“Yet the consequences for Pfizer and the individuals concerned continue to be derisory. This hopeless system of regulation for a multi-billion dollar life and death industry has become a sham, in dire need of reform.”

The news comes after Pfizer’s CEO previously found himself in hot water over his ‘misleading’ comments about children’s vaccines​, made during an interview with the BBC.

In the interview, Dr Albert Bourla said that ‘there is no doubt in my mind that the benefits, completely, are in favour of vaccinating youngsters aged five to 11 against Covid-19’.

He added that: ‘Covid in schools is thriving’ and ‘there are kids that will have severe symptoms’.

These comments were made before the vaccine received approval by the UK’s medical regulator for this age group and were found to have breached code of practice by the PMCPA.

Pfizer has evidently made several missteps in this area. But will the company exercise more caution in the future and will its latest oversight serve as a warning for the pharma industry as a whole?

“Companies and their employees should be extremely careful about what they are posting in the public domain. Pfizer needs to take more measures to inform its employees to not share incomplete or unnecessary information on platforms without prior approval,” Bhatia adds.

Bhatia also argues that, since this is a recurring issue, stringent measures should be undertaken to make sure those breaching the code are ‘adequately penalised’ which ‘sets an example for the future and reduces the chances of such event reoccurring’.

Such blunders are likely to cause both inconvenience and embarrassment for major, public-facing companies like Pfizer. They can also increase mistrust between the public and pharmaceutical companies, especially during a heighted time like the pandemic. 

Pfizer's latest slap on the wrist follows several other watchdog complaints, indicating that the company must take action internally. 

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