Pfizer and a very incompetent government

Morrison Pfizer deal

It has been revealed that in July 2020, just three months after the coronavirus pandemic commenced, the Australian government rejected an offer from the pharmaceutical and biotechnology company, Pfizer Inc., to supply 40 million vaccination doses, whenever they became commercially available. Vaccines to reduce the impact and effect of the COVID-19 variant were frantically being researched and developed and, at that stage, it was unknown when these vaccines were going to become available—if at all—and the offer also included a proposal to establish Australia as an international model for the rollout of COVID-19 vaccination program, an offer that was subsequently taken up by the Israeli government.

If the Pfizer plan had been agreed to and implemented, Australia would have commenced its vaccination rollout in January this year. Even with the current dysfunctional national rollout strategy, the amount of people vaccinated would now be around six million, or around 25 per cent of the population—and with the correct vaccination implemented by the states and territories, following the procedures recommended by Pfizer, that figure now would be closer to 60 per cent, which means Australia would have been around one month away from achieving the herd immunity to COVID-19 so many countries around the world have been working towards.

Pfizer has produced the most effective COVID-19 vaccination available: according to the Lancet medical journal, its efficacy rate is 95 per cent, followed by Moderna at 90 per cent, and Gamalaya at 91 per cent. Towards the back of this queue is the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at 68 per cent, and AstraZeneca at the end of the list, with a 67 per cent efficacy rate.

The Australian government, on behalf of the public, could have obtained the best COVID-19 vaccine—of course, it would have been at a premium price—but they would have also received the first batches of the vaccine, set up Australia as an international model testing zone, and Australia would have been on clear pathway towards full vaccination.

They rejected this proposition.

In his 1964 book, The Lucky Country, Donald Horne referred to Australia’s ‘second-rate’ leadership and management, where “most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise”. The ABC journalist and political editor, Laura Tingle, once suggested Australia is “actually being governed by idiots and fools”, and the management of the vaccines provides ample proof of these sentiments: A second-rate government that has provided the Australian community with a second-rate vaccination program.

Watching the Australian government get it wrong, again and again and again: it’s becoming tedious. It does need to be taken into account that in these unprecedented and difficult circumstances of a pandemic, mistakes are almost inevitably bound to happen and it’s up to governments, who contain the resources and ability to obtain the best possible advice, to ensure mistakes are reduced and problems alleviated.

But it seems this has gone beyond the point of making mistakes and into the realm of wilful incompetence: rejecting the Pfizer proposal in July 2020 is up there with some of the more ridiculous decisions by government, and why they are not prioritising the health of the Australian community is bewildering. Yes, the Pfizer proposal had a large price tag attached to it, but what’s more expensive in the long term: health, or a sick population with a damaged economy?

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Since the pandemic commenced in early 2020, the countries that have managed or reduced the coronavirus effectively, also have the better performing economies. Australia has managed the pandemic relatively well, but it seems these decisions are going to affect the ability to manage the virus into the future—as can be seen by the recent extended lockdown experiences in Melbourne and Sydney—which, in turn, affects economic output.

It’s not clear who is benefiting from this lack of government action and poor decision-making but it’s almost as though the actions are intended to ensure that vaccines and associated benefits shouldn’t accrue to marginalised people or the electorates that are unlikely to benefit the Liberal or National parties. It may seem outrageous to suggest this, but Morrison is a highly political prime minister and seemingly only exists to seek political opportunity and political benefit. And his behaviours since he won the May 2019 federal election support this theory.

Why did the Australia government push for the supply of AstraZenica and reject the Pfizer proposal? The public needs to know the full details of what occurred in July 2020 and why those particular decisions were made. It’s evident the government attempted to cut corners and costs, both in the production of the vaccine and the delivery of doses. But this attempt also needs to be considered within the context of overall spending.

The government did have the money

At that particular time, the government was provided carte blanche approval by Parliament to spend $303 billion on stimulus programs, as the JobKeeper scheme, and health and community protection measures. The cost of Pfizer is around $26 per dose, and the provision of 40 million doses would have cost around $1 billion, and with the development of cold storage facilities to house the vials—longer term storage temperatures are minus 70°C, while vials can be stored in shorter-term locations such as doctor’s surgeries at 2°C—the full cost of provision, storage and delivery would have been in the vicinity of $4 billion.

Josh Frydenberg and Scott Morrison had $303 billion available for pandemic-related spending measures in the 2020 Budget but knocked back Pfizer’s $4 billion proposal to fully vaccinate Australia.

There’s no question that a $4 billion price tag to secure the Pfizer vaccine is a major consideration but there is a number of key considerations: the government had $303 billion available to it in additional spending, with few questions asked about how it was going to spend this money. To give this figure further context, the cost of the government’s offshore processing system over the past eight years is $8 billion—a system that has punished 3,000 asylum seekers—and there are many other programs and wasteful spending where the government rarely blinks or thinks twice about before applying this funds. The infamous “sports rorts” affair is another, where $250 million was spent on pork-barrelling in the lead up to the 2019 election, as well as another $200 million in the regional jobs and investment scheme, in which government MPs hand-picked specific projects and assorted rorts which also gave the Coalition an electoral boost in 2019.

The government had a choice of a far superior Pfizer vaccine which could have resulted in Australia close to achieving herd immunity by the end of July 2021—but they chose a far cheaper and less effective AstraZenica vaccine at a cost of $3 per dose, which has now been found to have some greater medical risk for people under 50, as well as supply issues. The government clearly defined its goal and political rhetoric about opening up the economy and society as quickly as possible and the Pfizer proposal provided a clear solution to these political ambitions, albeit at a far greater financial cost.

And by attempting to save costs in what seems to be a short-term decision, this will have greater impacts on health, and implications for the economic recovery and future economic performance. It easier to be wise after the event but there was a wide range of information available at that time about the development of the different vaccines and their likely success.

Perhaps there was some level of scepticism about the vaccine being developed at all, considering a vaccine for coronaviruses had never been developed before in human history, and some disbelief that a vaccine to COVID-19 could be developed within six months, in the context that most medical and virological opinion suggested if a vaccine were to be developed, it would be at least five years before it could viably appear on the market.

Perhaps the Pfizer proposal was considered too good to be true but at a government level, with its level of top-line chief medical officers, epidemiologists and virus experts, would have been able to access the veracity of these claims and the likelihood of the success of the Pfizer proposal.

The US government signed a $US1.9 billion contract with Pfizer and BioNTech in July 2020 to supply 100 million doses, information which should have provided the Australian government with a high level of confidence to proceed with the Pfizer proposal. At that time, Pfizer had also been approved in several countries, provisionally approval for emergency usage in the US and European Union, and was considered to be the leading vaccine of a group of 94 vaccines that were in development.

A government committed to opening up society and the economy should have committed itself to obtaining the vaccine with the highest efficacy rate and, if the government’s chief medical officers were unsure about the Pfizer vaccine, they should have secured deals with as many pharmaceutical companies as possible—which many other developed countries achieved. Morrison assured the electorate that vaccines had been secured but it’s evident that this wasn’t the case and the opportunity to secure the most important and significant deal—with Pfizer—was overlooked.

Pfizer’s deal should have been accepted as soon as their executives walked into the negotiating room. The rejection indicates a lack of foresight by the government and, if the proposal was rejected for reasons of cost, was a poor economic decision. The current Sydney lockdown has been estimated to cost $2 billion in lost revenues for the 14-day period, and recent the state-wide lockdowns in Victoria were costing $1 billion per week.

For roughly the same cost as the recent Sydney and Melbourne lockdowns, Australia could have acquired the world’s best-practice vaccination program, and drastically reduced the possibility of ongoing lockdowns throughout Australia. And provided the economy with the openness and the future security Morrison has been promising the business community and the electorate.

Anger in the medical community

The information about these negotiations with Pfizer in July 2020—or more accurately, the non-negotiations—have only recently come to light, and many people in the field of epidemiology and medicine have been bemused and surprised about this revelation. Dr Norman Swan is the ABC’s medical affairs journalist and prominent health communicator, and has barely disguised his fury over the issue, outlining his concerns about the neglect on the Pfizer deal and how it’s currently affecting the national vaccination program:

“I’ve now had three sources telling me the same story. One, including from the United States, of what happened with Pfizer last June [2020]. And if these three separate sources are right, what happened with Pfizer last June is that they wanted to make Australia an example to the world about how to rollout—a bit like Israel or other places—and they said, ‘how much do you want, when do you want it?’

Tenth of July, there was a meeting and what I’m told happened at that meeting was that there was an inexperienced person there with procurement, they were pretty rude at the meeting and they said, ‘well you’re gonna have to give us all your IP [intellectual property]’, which is an amazing thing to have said—and started nickel and diming on the cost.

And essentially, the conversation stopped and then they came back in November, the Commonwealth, and only got 10 million doses. They should have ordered 40 million so that we’ve got enough as a true backup—we didn’t know what was going to be happening then. And I suspect that some of the experts that were advising them told them that the mRNA vaccine wasn’t going to be any good, don’t bother.

I’d love to know what happened in that room. Those are the questions I’d like to ask because—maybe I’ve been doing this too long over the last year, I’m getting a bit tired, but I’m just really angry. Personally, now crossing the line as a journalist, but just really angry.

The level of incompetence is breathtaking and when you talk to people on the inside, they say it’s worse than you imagine it from the outside.”

It is up to the government to provide more details about why these decisions were made: what were the health considerations; what were the financial considerations? The bigger issue is that these are decisions that were made under the secrecy of the National Cabinet, formed during the early stages of the pandemic in March 2020. But these are critical health and financial decisions and the electorate has the right to know why these particular decisions were made, which on the surface, were not made in the public interest.

The politics of pandemic

The federal government has been playing partisan pandemic politics for some time now, whereas the political behaviour they should be engaged in is allaying fear, spreading calm within the community, ensuring the electorate is communicated with effectively, working with opposition parties to ensure they are up to date, and be open to fair and reasonable debate and fair and reasonable criticism.

Instead, the politics of the Liberal–National coalition has been to look at whatever the Labor state and territory governments are doing, and then doing the opposite; assisting the Liberal–National states politically and financially, before they offer assistance to Labor-held governments; causing drama and setting up division among the states. It’s almost like second-year undergraduate university politics, because that’s all this federal government knows how to do.

It’s not in the country’s best interests.

It’s also a case of a government that they seem to know the costs of everything—and maybe not even that—but the value of nothing. It happens time and time and again: political opportunism and maniacal behaviour, and it’s not entirely sure who the main beneficiary of their actions is.

The National Broadband Network is a prime example, where the project should have been implemented once, and implemented properly. But, the Liberal–National parties wanted to skimp and save and, eight years after they decided to downgrade Labor’s original fibre-to-the-premises project, the NBN will need to go into a second stage of development to make it a viable long-term project.

The ‘do it once, do it right’ approach espoused by the former independent MP, Tony Windsor, for the NBN in 2013, should have been adopted for the vaccination rollout. The government backed the wrong runner in the vaccine race, when they should have hedged their bets, and then when offered the prize, proceeded to look the gift horse in the mouth. The government made the wrong decision, and there’s no clear reason why: there’s no follow-up; there’s no accountability; and now, there’s no recourse.

The government can’t go back and change its mind, it’s far too late to reverse an incredibly bad decision but instead of seeking recourse, and ensuring these poor decisions are not repeated in the future, it doubles down.

It makes more political decisions to cover over their incompetence, obscures reality, or tries to market its way away from political problems. For example, the vaccination rollout is now labelled the ‘National Vaccination Allocation Horizons’; the Howard Springs quarantine centre repatriating returning Australia citizens from overseas has been renamed the ‘Centre of National Resilience’.

This is a government that keeps making the big mistakes on all the big issues, and it’s not clear how many mistakes it will be allowed to make before the electorate starts to take notice.

Morrison still holds large approval ratings: in the most recent Newspoll released on 27 June, he held an approval rating of 55 per cent, although his disapproval rating is 41 per cent. The two-party preferred voting pattern is 49 per cent for the Coalition, 51 per cent for Labor, which is not a clear winning position for either party.

There comes a point where every government reaches its use-by date, and the Morrison government reached this point even before it was elected in May 2019: it’s not a government that’s suitable for the times, and its political behaviour is not synchronised with the requirements of the post-pandemic world in Australia. It’s the wrong government in office at precisely the wrong time.

The key issues for this stage are the vaccination rollout and building quarantine centres in cities and key regional areas, and the government has failed miserably in both tasks.

Running out of luck

Much self-interest and longevity can be achieved by incompetent governments when they are supported by a soft media. But the media’s perception and presentation of the issues as they see them can often be different to the lived realities of the electorate.

In the 2017 Western Australia election, the Liberal Party was shocked when they were handed a 12.8 per cent swing, a loss of 20 seats, and an abrupt end to their eight-year period in government. A print and electronic media landscape dominated by right-wing proprietors promoting coverage slanted towards the Liberal and National parties, and hostile against the Labor Party, masked over the many cracks in that government.

The public was constantly told by the media about the brilliance of the WA Premier, Colin Barnett, and high-performance of the WA Liberal–National government. But the rhetoric of the media didn’t match up to the lived experiences of the public.

And that is the point where this federal government has arrived at within this political cycle: the mainstream media predominantly supports the Liberal and National in its coverage of political news, and is keen to promote Morrison in a positive light at every opportunity. But the lived experiences of the electorate, as was the case in Western Australia in 2017, is not matching up with the rhetoric.

The vaccination program is in disarray and obvious task of implementing a quarantine system to reduce the changes of costly lockdowns, is not being attended to.

These failures could become quite potent and politically dangerous issues for the Morrison government at the next federal election. And, as Donald Horne reminded us, the good luck that an incompetent government depends on for its success, simply runs out.

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About Eddy Jokovich and David Lewis 9 Articles
Eddy Jokovich and David Lewis are the presenters of the New Politics podcast.