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A series of Pfizer emails that have been made public could prove to be another black eye for the Coalition in its bungling of the Covid-19 vaccine rollout.
The emails, obtained by the ABC, show repeated requests from Pfizer to Health Minister Greg Hunt's office to show urgency in obtaining vaccines. They also show the UK and the US had both signed agreements to secure their doses two weeks before the Health Minister's office even arranged a meeting to negotiate a vaccine purchase.
According to the ABC, Pfizer initiated contact with the Department of Health on June 26 last year via email. Four days later, Pfizer requested a meeting between the Health Minister and "senior members of Pfizer's global leadership team".
"I am requesting the meeting occur at the earliest opportunity," the unnamed Pfizer official wrote.
Three days later, the department’s first secretary Lisa Schofield responded, and met with Pfizer – without the Health Minister – on July 10.
Ms Schofield told a Senate Select Committee hearing on June 21 this year Pfizer at that meeting presented “where they were up to”.
“They talked through the work that they were doing on the clinical trial for their Covid vaccine,” she said.
“They talked broadly about their manufacturing strategy and supply chain activities. I think it was a preliminary view of where they were up to and what they were thinking.”
She added Pfizer did not “in any level of detail” make any offers of vaccine in the July 10 meeting and Mr Hunt was advised of the meeting.
Pfizer next made contact on July 14, according to the documents, and offered to meet government officials for discussion about a vaccine rollout plan.
But the government would need to sign a confidential disclosure agreement and if they could not do this, Pfizer suggested an “exploratory/ introductory meeting”, which the secretary accepted.
More notes detailed how Pfizer wanted to “move as quickly as possible” and suggested how many doses it could provide.
Two weeks later, Pfizer disclosed deals had been signed with the US and the UK. Reps from Mr Hunt’s office met with Pfizer in August.
It was not until November last year that the government agreed to a deal with Pfizer to secure 10 million doses. The government has since purchased more, including from Poland last month.
The documents and emails were obtained by the Labor Party under Freedom of Information laws.
Shadow Health Minister Mark Butler tweeted the documents are proof "Australians were never 'at the front of the queue'".
Department refutes delayed response claims
A spokesperson for the Minister for Health and Aged Care rejected claims the government took months to take action and said the department began working with Pfizer “shortly after the pandemic began”.
“There had been constant informal engagements prior to that time, as the email trail shows,” the spokesperson said.
“Pfizer advised however, they were not allowed to commence formal negotiations at that time.”
The spokesperson said the department “moved immediately” to formal negotiations including a Confidentiality Disclosure Agreement on June 30 with its first formal meeting on July 10.
“Pfizer wrote to the Government advising they were now in a position to engage formally, while the COVID-19 vaccine candidate was in Phase 1 clinical trials,” the spokesperson said.
“Since this time, there have been numerous formal meetings and phone engagements with the company as part of securing supply of the vaccine for the Australian population.
“The Australian Government entered into an Advanced Purchase Agreement (APA) with Pfizer for the purchase of their Covid-19 vaccine as soon as possible, whilst ensuring safe and effective vaccines for Australians based on the medical advice from SITAG and the maximum doses available.”
The spokesperson added the government's discussions with Pfizer “have been extensive and cooperative”.
The vaccine rollout has been widely criticised as being sluggish and confusing with a lack of access to Pfizer vaccines and mixed messaging about the safety of AstraZeneca for younger Australians.
The rollout is also being blamed for placing Victoria and NSW in lockdown due to ongoing community transmission.
Covid claimed the life of a NSW man in his 20s in the past 24 hours.
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