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Let's make a deal: Pfizer emails reveal Minister dragged feet in vax talks

Politics

Health Minister Greg Hunt has defended Australia’s negotiations with Pfizer following emails showing the pharmaceutical giant wanted to speed up talks for a vaccine deal.

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Emails released after a Labor freedom of information request show Pfizer made first contact with the government last June and urged a meeting as soon as possible.

While other nations clinched agreements with Pfizer, Hunt’s office first met with company representatives in August before signing a deal in November.

The minister has hit back at opposition accusations that the coalition government “deliberately adopted a so-called wait-and-see approach”.

“We’ve engaged with the vaccine companies from the earliest possible times,” Hunt told the Nine Network on Thursday.

“In February of last year, we commenced the program for vaccine research and searching for vaccines, engaged with Pfizer throughout.

“What we received was the earliest possible available and we received it in the quantities that they made available.”

Labor health spokesman Mark Butler accused the government of botching negotiations.

“While every other developed country in the world was tearing a hamstring to get into a meeting room with Pfizer and sign a supply deal on behalf of their people, there was a go-slow in Australia,” he told the ABC.

Emails show a high-ranking health bureaucrat was offered a meeting with senior global Pfizer bosses if Hunt or departmental leadership was involved.

“As the vaccine development landscape is moving swiftly, including through engagements with other nations, I am requesting this meeting occur at the earliest opportunity,” the company’s representative said.

The emails also attached a letter to Hunt requesting a meeting to open discussions about a potential vaccine deal.

Pfizer said it could supply millions of doses to the world by the end of 2020, subject to technical success and regulatory approvals, before scaling up to hundreds of millions in 2021.

Health Department first assistant secretary Lisa Schofield replied three days later saying she would meet with the company.

Pfizer then said the government would need to sign a confidential disclosure agreement for senior figures to hear detail about the company’s approach.

Schofield replied two days later telling Pfizer it was not usual practice to sign such agreements as officials were legally required to keep discussions secret.

An introductory meeting on July 10 was agreed to instead.

Health Department notes from the discussion show Pfizer wanted to speed up the process and rapidly deploy doses.

Almost two weeks later Pfizer told the government the UK and US had signed vaccine deals with the company.

Hunt’s office first met with Pfizer representatives on August 4 and Australia’s first 10 million-dose deal was signed in November.

Australia has fully vaccinated almost 40 per cent of its over-16 population while more than 64 per cent have received a single dose.

NSW recorded nine deaths and 1480 new cases on Wednesday.

Victoria has recorded 324 new locally acquired COVID-19 cases on Thursday – its highest figure since August 2020 – as those who live in the regions prepare to emerge from lockdown.

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