The Australian government’s approach to securing Covid vaccines has come under scrutiny again after it released documents detailing the early stages of talks with the drug maker Pfizer.
Internal government emails, released in response to a Freedom of Information request by an opposition party politician, show that a Pfizer Australia representative wrote to the Australian minister of health, Greg Hunt, in late June last year to request a meeting. The Pfizer representative wrote that the pharmaceutical giant had “the potential to supply millions of vaccine doses by the end of 2020.”
The request was passed to a senior official, a first assistant secretary of the health department, who met with Pfizer the following month. Subsequent emails show that Pfizer had asked the Australian government to sign a confidential disclosure agreement, which the official said was “not usual practice” for the government.
The exchange occurred around the same time that the U.S. and British governments were finalizing multibillion-dollar deals with Pfizer to secure access to large numbers of vaccine doses. That month, Britain bought 30 million doses and the United States 100 million.
The released documents do not include information about costs, or about the scope of the confidentiality agreement.
Opposition politicians including Ged Kearney, the lawmaker who filed the Freedom of Information request, have used the documents to amplify criticism that Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government bungled the vaccine rollout, which has been hampered in part by a tight supply of Pfizer doses. Opposition leaders criticized the government’s response to Pfizer’s offer as slow, which they said put Australia “months behind other countries.”
Mr. Hunt’s office rejected suggestions that the government had been slow to act. A spokesperson for the Department of Health said that the government had “constant informal engagements” with Pfizer before the company sent its email to Mr. Hunt, on June 30, but were told that the company was not ready to begin formal talks.
After Pfizer’s email, the government “moved immediately to formal negotiations,” including negotiating a confidentiality agreement, the spokesperson said. Mr. Hunt’s office met with Pfizer’s leadership for the first time in August 2020 to discuss issues like supply chains and costs, the released documents show.
In November 2020, Australia signed a deal with Pfizer for 10 million doses, the first of which arrived in February, about two months after the United States received its initial supplies. Australia has since purchased another 30 million doses from the company.
So far, just 52 percent of Australians have received at least one vaccine dose and 31 percent are fully vaccinated, compared with 62 percent with at least one dose and 53 percent fully vaccinated in the United States. More than half of Australia’s population of 25 million is in lockdown as outbreaks of the Delta variant surge.
This is not the first time that the Australian government has faced scrutiny over its approach to Pfizer. In July, Kevin Rudd, a former prime minister, claimed that he had personally appealed to Pfizer’s chief executive, Albert Bourla, to speed up vaccine deliveries to Australia after Mr. Morrison had failed to speak to him. Mr. Morrison’s government denied that account and said that it was in regular contact with Pfizer’s leadership in Australia.