BBC Should Step Aside and Allow the Biopharmaceutical Industry to Do its Own Public Relations
With so many prior screw ups, now is the time for Big Fact Check to shut down.
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7 minute read
Big Fact Check and it’s many righteous followers erupted into furious Old Testament anger when some tweeters began noting that a Pfizer executive testified before the European Parliament that Pfizer never tested if their COVID-19 prevented transmission — much against the impressions that many, including the pharma giant itself, had given to the public.
Jumping into the fray, BBC senior reporter for health and misinformation Rachel Schraer began whacking the claim down with a thread going into a series of dizzying, tiny details that squiggled around facts and came out burnishing Pfizer, which has long played word games that misled average people. The larger question one should ask: Why are the BBC and other fact check sites constantly sprinting to the podium as spokespeople for an industry with such a long and tattered history of documented lies?
First, a little context: Until BP agreed to a record $4 billion fine for the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it was Pfizer that had paid the largest criminal fine in the history of our planet. Pfizer’s settlement was just part of the tally collected by Public Citizen, which reported in 2018 that drugmakers entered into 412 settlements totaling $38.6 billion in criminal and civil penalties in the prior 26 years. Again, no other industry comes close to this.
And when governments first began facing the possibility of a global pandemic, who did the world come to rely on to create the vaccines in the United States—Moncef Slaoui, a GlaxoSmithKline executive, who I caught a decade ago misrepresenting scientific research on the safety of a diabetes drug that harmed tens of thousands of people.
So again, why are fact checkers—like servants around a king—scurrying about to flatter and support these people? I contacted Rachel Schraer and posed some questions to her, but the one I really wanted answered was why she has never fact checked the biopharmaceutical industry.
When I posed this question to Full Fact last month, they could not give one example of a fact check they did on a biopharmaceutical company. The BBC’s Schraer also could not provide an example of a fact check she did on the biopharmaceutical industry, but she tells me that she is very interested in holding the companies to account and that she has a couple things she is looking into.
However, she wasted no time in rushing to stand up for Pfizer …. er, I mean fact check to defend Pfizer when people began beating up on company. Unfortunately, most of her tweets come off as one-sided as a defense lawyer citing legal technicalities to shield a client with a shady past.
Okay, kinda’, sorta’, maybe true. But, now some facts.
As soon as Pfizer began recruiting patients for their clinical trial, all the way back in the summer of 2020, CEO Albert Bourla started messaging that people needed to get the COVID-19 vaccine to stop transmission. In an August 2020 interview with the Washington Post, Bourla said.
I want to send a second message to those that are reluctant, maybe, to do a vaccine. And they need to understand that this decision, unfortunately in this case, does not affect only their health. Unfortunately, by making this decision, they will become the weak links in the way that the virus is transmitted, and they will enable the virus to [audio distortion] and they will risk society's health rather than their own health. It's also something that they need to take into consideration.
Bourla gave another interview a few months later where he warned that for people taking the vaccine it “will not only affect their lives” but those around them. In an exclusive on the Today Show, Bourla was questioned about the lack of trust that people had for the vaccines and vaccine makers.
People have trust issues. People have trust issues with the government and frankly they have trust issues with the pharmaceutical companies.
I understand their concerns, because there’s so much confusion during this COVID crisis that no one knows whom to believe and what to believe.
Their decision, they need to understand, will not only affect their lives. At the end of the day, it is their judgement. But will affect the lives of others, because if they do not vaccinate, they will become the weak link that will allow this virus to replicate.
This isn’t all, of course. When the FDA held their December meeting to authorize Pfizer’s vaccine, one of the committee members mentioned that nobody knows if the vaccine would protect the unvaccinated.
Not missing a beat, Pfizer’s Kathrin Jansin jumped in to persuade committee members that the vaccine just might prevent infection.
I may remind, though, that we have data, not from humans but from [our] non-human primate study, that would argue that the vaccine does prevent infection. We have seen that it prevents infection of the lung, and we have also seen some evidence that it has a more transient – that the virus is more transiently detected in the vaccinated animals compared to the control animals.
The BBC’s Schraer also tweeted that neither Pfizer nor that health agencies claimed that the vaccines prevented transmission. Well, we know this is false, because Bourla claimed as much back in August 2020 when they didn’t even have any data. She then tweeted this claim.
If by cautious, does she mean the Director of the CDC later referencing Pfizer and other companies’ clinical trials to say, “Our data from the CDC today suggest that vaccinated people do not carry the virus, don’t get sick. And that it’s not just in the clinical trials, but it’s also in real world data.”
The CDC then began promoting the meme that COVID-19 vaccine would “stop the spread of germs.”
As did the British National Health System.
And this by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases which claimed you could “stop the spread of COVID-19” by getting vaccinated.
All this exalted praise for the vaccines later led to this headline at Fortune.
Another article here. And, oooooooh. This one comes with it’s very own “fact check”!
“When you get vaccinated, you not only protect your own health and that of the family but also you contribute to the community health by preventing the spread of the virus throughout the community,” Anthony Fauci said that May during a Sunday morning TV interview.
When Fauci said this, he was not only a leader at the National Institutes of Health, but also the Medical Advisor to the President of the United States.
When you play clever defense lawyer, like Schraer, you will likely dig into the fine print and find that the vaccines were actually tested for “preventing COVID-19 disease.” But this is not what was being communicated. By inverting definitions and mixing up terms, many in the media and Big Fact Check were providing public relations for biopharmaceutical companies by promoting the idea that the vaccines were stopping transmission.
Media and government officials were regularly conflating the difference between being infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus and being infected with COVID-19. Here’s one headline.
And here’s a “fact check” by USA Today:
Getting vaccinated reduces individuals' risk of both getting COVID-19 and giving it to someone else, said Emily R. Smith, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at The George Washington University's Milkin Institute School of Public Health.
So please. Spare me the medical semantics.
Is it any wonder that people thought Pfizer promoted the message that the COVID-19 vaccines stopped transmission?
Are we supposed to believe that executives at this enormous multinational with a bloated PR and marketing budget were naive and unaware of this messaging to promote their product and fatten their wallets? Such that even the CDC Director was confused about whether she tested positive for the “COVID-19 disease” or the virus?
And let’s not forget the many people whose social media accounts were blocked or terminated for stating that the vaccines did not stop transmission. The very claim that all these fact checkers are now protecting. Here’s just one example.
Unfortunately, Schraer was not the only “fact checker” out there promoting this kind of misleading silliness. Factcheck.org, the AP, and Reuters also jumped in with very lawyerly accounts of what Pfizer said and did. Could they maybe divert some of this energy into doing a journalism?
In case you’re still confused, here’s Fox New having a heyday catching people saying the vaccine prevents transmission.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I was injected with the Pfizer vaccine, because that’s what Spain offered for protection. However, I’m very concerned that many journalists and fact checkers were injected with Big Pharma Kool-Aid because that’s how they behave.
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