The claim: Pfizer withheld positive news about its coronavirus vaccine until after the election
Pfizer and its collaborator BioNTech released early study results on Nov. 9 indicating that their COVID-19 vaccine prevented more than 90% of infections.
Charlie Kirk, a conservative activist, claimed in a video posted to Facebook on Nov. 11 that Pfizer withheld the news until after Joe Biden secured enough electoral votes to become president-elect on Nov. 7.
“Isn’t it interesting that probably the best news for the market and for potential swing voters that voted a week ago was just released this morning?” Kirk said. “Regardless of your views on vaccinations, I think it is widely agreed upon that the news of an effective vaccine would help the markets and also help President Trump.”
Kirk noted that Pfizer considered releasing interim results after analyzing 32 cases in late October. But in consultation with the Food and Drug Administration, the pharmaceutical giant decided against it and released fuller interim analysis results from 94 cases on Nov. 9.
“Why is it that Pfizer did not release this news when they had it 10 days ago?” Kirk asked. “The reason? Election interference.”
“Why did they not even announce the results on Friday, or Thursday? The reason is Pfizer wanted to wait until Joe Biden was coronated as president, so that Joe Biden could get the credit for this,” he added, referring to two and three days after Election Day.
“They sat on this news. They directly interfered in the U.S. presidential election,” Kirk stated.
More: Fact check: Health and Human Services closed standalone vaccine office, merged it amid restructuring
President Donald Trump also leveled such accusations against Pfizer and the FDA on Twitter the day the news was announced.
“As I have long said, @Pfizer and the others would only announce a Vaccine after the Election, because they didn’t have the courage to do it before. Likewise, the @US_FDA should have announced it earlier, not for political purposes, but for saving lives!” he wrote.
Kirk’s page added a correction to the video, then deleted it, since this fact-check was published. The White Househas not responded to a request from USA TODAY for additional comment.
Other Facebook posts have promoted the same narrative.
Pfizer CEO did not learn of the positive news until Sunday, just after the data was analyzed
Pfizer lacked access to its trial data until after Election Day and could not have known or released the results prior to that.
Albert Bourla, Pfizer’s CEO, told Axios that the data came in on Nov. 5 or 6, after Election Day on Nov. 3.
“From the time that the data comes in, before the committee meets, some people need to prepare for each case,” he said. “So there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. But we did it with the speed of light.”
As a result, the soonest the independent monitoring committee could analyze the data from the 94 cases was on Nov. 8, after Biden had been declared president-elect.
“The independent experts’ committee, independent from Pfizer, that unblinded the data and reviewed, they met at 11 and they finished their meeting at 1:30,” Borula said.
Bourla himself then learned of the results on at 2 p.m. Pfizer announced the news to the public the following morning.
More: Pfizer to seek approval from FDA ‘within days’ after further analysis finds COVID-19 vaccine 95% effective
Borula confirmed that he would have released the results prior to Election Day, had he been able to.
“If it was before, I would have released it before. If it is now, I’ll release them now,” he said.
Kathrin Jansen, who heads vaccine research and development at Pfizer, told ScienceInsider that “we had no time and still have no time to deal with politics.”
“We are at this 24/7, thousands of people working diligently to make this work,” she said. “And for us, it was never about politics, it was always about just the disaster that we were in the middle of, all of us globally, seeing the devastation and the deaths.”
More: Q&A: Pfizer exec talks COVID-19 vaccine timetable, distribution
Pfizer considered releasing results from 32 cases, but decided it was more scientifically sound to wait for more cases
It is true that Pfizer had scheduled the first analysis of its data after 32 of its 30,000 trial participants reported cases of COVID-19 — and thought it’d be ready before Election Day.
In September, Borula told the Today Show that the company’s model “predicts that we will have an answer by the end of October,” though he noted that it was the “best case” prediction.
But on an earnings call on Oct. 27, just a week prior to Election Day, Pfizer said the 32-case mark had not yet been achieved, per Fox Business.
Numerous members of the scientific community — including scientists at the Food and Drug Administration — also expressed concerns that data based on only 32 cases was insufficient, according to the Washington Post. In late October, a vaccine advisory committee at the FDA “ridiculed” the concept of reporting data on just 32 cases.
Not long after, Pfizer revised its protocol to wait for 62 cases — and ended up with 94 cases of COVID-19 among 44,000 trial participants.
Pfizer explained the change in its press release on Nov. 9.
“After discussion with the FDA, the companies recently elected to drop the 32-case interim analysis and conduct the first interim analysis at a minimum of 62 cases,” the release stated. “Upon the conclusion of those discussions, the evaluable case count reached 94 and the (Data Monitoring Committee) performed its first analysis on all cases.”
Evaluating more cases also increased the statistical strength of the results, per STAT, which also noted the study design, with its 32-case interim analysis, “came under fire from experts who worried that, even if it was statistically valid, these interim analyses would not provide enough data when a vaccine could be given to billions of people.”
Even though Pfizer had 32 cases in October, it waited to analyze them until the case count went up — and therefore didn’t know the results in advance of Election Day.
Pfizer contributed to both Democrats and Republicans this cycle
In his video, Kirk references the political contributions Pfizer has made as purported proof of the company’s motivation to withhold the news about the vaccine.
Kirk lists the following figures:
$256,520 from Pfizer to Joe Biden for President
$152,120 from Pfizer to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC)
$106,859 from Pfizer to the Democratic National Committee Services Corp. (DNC)
$99,811 from Pfizer to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC)
He also claims that employees of Pfizer donated $37,703 to Bernie Sanders and $35,352 to the Pete Buttigieg.
These are all real figures from the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets.org.
In reality, Pfizer itself never contributed to Biden.
Kirk obscures a key distinction — contributions from Pfizer itself and contributions from individuals associated with Pfizer, which include “members, employees or owners of the organization, and those individuals’ immediate family members.”
The figure that Kirk referenced — $256,520 to Biden — came from individuals associated with the company, not the company itself. Likewise, there were $62,058 in contributions from individuals associated with the company to Trump.
Kirk fails to mention that OpenSecrets also lists contributions to the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee (NRSC), the Republican National Committee (RNC) and the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).
And contributions that came directly from Pfizer to the Democrats and Republicans were almost equal with a total of $235,000 to the DSCC, DNC, and DCCC, and $200,000 to the RSCC, RNC and NRCC.
It’s only with the added contributions from individuals associated with the corporation that there’s any sort of disparity — with a total of $688,365 to Democrats and $377,197 to Republicans.
Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine is being shipped in specially designed, insulated containers that hold between 195 and 975 five-dose vials and are about the size of a carry-on suitcase. The vials are stored in flat, pizza box-sized compartments, each of which holds 195 vials. A fully-loaded thermal container, which is reusable, contains five of these and weighs about 70 pounds. These “shippers” as Pfizer calls them have space at the top for dry ice, which can keep the vaccine at the necessary temperature for ten days if unopened, or five days as long as it’s opened no more than twice a day for very short periods of time
Sharon Castillo, a spokesperson for Pfizer, told USA TODAY that the contributions of its private citizen employees “cannot be tied to Pfizer in any way, shape, or form.”
As for the company’s direct contributions, Castillo said they are guided by two principles.
“We contribute to elected officials and candidates from both sides of the aisle pretty evenly, and we contribute to policy makers who are furthering the incentives for innovation and expanding access to medicines and vaccines,” she said.
Castillo also said the overall claim that Pfizer withheld data is “categorically false.”
“Mr. Kirk’s statements are unfortunate, unfair, and unproductive,” she said.
Our rating: False
Based on our research, the claim that Pfizer intentionally withheld positive news about its coronavirus vaccine until after the election to hurt Trump or help Biden is FALSE. Pfizer’s CEO Albert Bourla said he would have released the results before Election Day if he’d had them. But the data didn’t come in until days afterward and wasn’t ready for analysis until Nov. 8, after Biden had secured enough electoral votes to become president-elect.
Our fact-check sources:
USA TODAY, Nov. 9, Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate shown to be 90% effective in early findings
Axios, Nov. 9, Pfizer CEO says he would’ve released vaccine data before election if possible
ScienceInsider, Nov. 11, Fact check: No evidence supports Trump’s claim that COVID-19 vaccine result was suppressed to sway election
Washington Post, Nov. 11, Trump rails against ‘medical deep state’ after Pfizer vaccine news comes after Election Day
Today Show, Sept. 8, Pfizer CEO on coronavirus vaccine: ‘We will have an answer by the end of October
Fox Business, Nov. 9, Critics question Pfizer vaccine trial results timing
Pfizer, Nov. 9, Pfizer and BioNTech Announce Vaccine Candidate Against COVID-19 Achieved Success in First Interim Analysis from Phase 3 Study
STAT, Nov. 9, Covid-19 vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech is strongly effective, early data from large trial indicate
OpenSecrets.org, Accessed Nov. 12, Pfizer Inc
Interview with Sharon Castillo, Nov. 13, Spokesperson for Pfizer
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: CEO says Pfizer released vaccine news as early as possible