A leading UK medical regulator has found that the global CEO of Pfizer misled parents about COVID vaccinations for children. The implication made by Albert Bourla’s claim that “the benefits completely were in favour of” vaccinating 5-11 year-olds against the virus has been described as “misleading and incapable of substantiation.”
After a complaint was brought forward by child advocacy group UsForThem over a November 2021 BBC interview with Dr. Bourla, the Prescription Medicines Code Of Practice Authority (PMCPA), which administers the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry Code of Practice for the pharmaceutical industry, substantiated serious allegations against the Pfizer head. The PMCPA appeal board later overturned a number of the body’s original findings but upheld some of the most serious ones, including that Dr. Bourla made unsubstantiated claims about the vaccination of children against COVID.
Asked by the BBC medical editor whether giving COVID vaccines to 5-11 year-olds was a “good idea,” Dr. Bourla responded that while COVID “symptoms are not very severe” in this age group, long COVID “is very worrisome,” so “I believe it’s a very good idea … There is no doubt in my mind about the benefits [which] completely completely [sic] are in favour of doing it.” At the time of the interview’s recording, the COVID vaccine had not yet been approved for this age group. The UK government-led Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation two months earlier declined to advise otherwise for those aged 12-15, given that “the margin of benefit, based primarily on a health perspective, is considered too small to support advice on a universal programme.” A pharmaceutical executive had also criticised the “ethical bankruptcy” of such a rollout.
The PMCPA’s appeal board found that these comments bore a “strong unqualified nature” and remained unconvinced by Pfizer’s insistence that they were not “misleading and incapable of substantiation.” It said:
[The] strong opinion statements … might infer to the ultimate audience, including members of the public, that there was no need to be concerned about potential side-effects of vaccination in healthy children aged 5-11 which was not so. [Emphasis added]
Pfizer told the regulator that (in the PMCPA’s words) it “had reasonably considered that the topic of childhood vaccination would not be a specific focus of the interview,” despite this having been a “hot topic.” Ahead of the discussion, aired on the BBC, Dr. Bourla was given a briefing document by his company, though “Pfizer acknowledged that perhaps additional wording could have been added to the briefing to help the CEO navigate the more complicated areas.” Pfizer’s own defence here suggests that Dr. Bourla was not well enough prepared to discuss the vaccination of young children against COVID, yet went on to do so in the strongest possible terms, insisting “there is no doubt in my mind” about the subject.
Commenting on the findings, Molly Kingsley, executive founder of UsForThem, said:
It seemed to us clear that Dr. Bourla’s statement—with no reference to any risk of adverse effects or other harms—was egregiously promotional, and potentially dangerously misleading. We are pleased that the appeal board appears to have agreed with us.
In a press release, Pfizer commented that it takes compliance seriously and was pleased that the “most serious” of the PMCPA’s original findings—that of bringing the industry into disrepute—was overturned at appeal. That Pfizer’s executives consider lowering the repute of the pharmaceutical industry to be a more serious matter than making misleading and unsubstantiated claims about the safety of medical products to be given to children is shameful, and speaks volumes about their priorities.
Mrs. Kingsley also told The European Conservative that Pfizer would not show UsForThem its briefing document during the review, despite its significance in the case.
That Dr. Bourla misled the public on vaccinating young children against COVID has received only minimal attention from the British press. While small charges will have been imposed by the PMCPA to cover the administration of complaints, and both Pfizer and its CEO will have to ensure that “all possible steps have been taken to avoid a similar breach in the future” (five breaches were confirmed in total), UsForThem highlighted that “no meaningful penalty” has been—or will be—imposed as a result of the misleading.
Responding to the case, Pfizer late last year said it was “committed to the highest levels of integrity in any interaction with the public,” adding:
In the UK, we have always endeavoured to follow the principles and letter of our industry Code of Practice throughout. We will review the case report in detail when we receive it, to inform future activity.
Throughout the pandemic, our communications have been focused on providing clarity regarding the progress of our science and supporting transparent scientific exchange in the interests of public health.