Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Did scandal-mired former Health Minister David Clark ignore Pfizer’s vaccine meeting request?

Labour Minister David Clark was sent a key Pfizer letter on June 30 last year, in which the drug company pressed the head of New Zealand’s “vaccine taskforce” to meet and discuss its vaccine candidate.

Taskforce officials, however, were not equipped at the time to begin talks with the drug company, and over six weeks elapsed before a first meeting took place.

The Cabinet finally armed the taskforce with funds both to contract specialist negotiation expertise and to make vaccine purchases on August 10; officials signed a non-disclosure agreement with Pfizer on August 13 and a first meeting with the company took place the following day, on August 14.

Clark, the then Health Minister, refused to answer questions about the letter, including whether he read it at the time and whether he made any effort to hasten the readiness of the taskforce to begin meetings and negotiations with the drug company.

Clark was beset by calls to quit his post at the time the Pfizer letter arrived and he resigned as Health Minister two days later, on July 2. An upcoming election, then scheduled for September 19, added sensitivity to Clark’s predicament.

He had twice contravened his Government’s own lockdown rules or advice, and he had appeared to deny even partial responsibility for deficiencies in the managed isolation system at the border. Contentiously, he had pinned blame squarely on his director-general of health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield.

Clark’s press secretary, Sam Farrell, said Clark, now reinstated to the Cabinet with four portfolios, including Commerce and Consumer Affairs, will not answer questions about the Pfizer letter because, “[he] no longer has ministerial responsibility for the health portfolio …”

Pfizer’s June letter noted: “We have the potential to supply millions of vaccine doses by the end of 2020, subject to technical success and regulatory approvals, then rapidly scale up to produce hundreds of millions of doses in 2021.

“I would welcome an opportunity to discuss our candidate vaccine development in more detail, and open discussions on how we might work together to support planning for potential Covid-19 vaccinations in New Zealand and continue to build a strong partnership for the future,” the letter said.

The writer’s name was omitted to protect privacy, the released version said.

Chris Bishop, National’s spokesman for Covid-19 Response, said Clark’s “inaction” showed “unforgivable incompetence from a minister clearly distracted by other things at the time.”

“He should have been moving with speed and alacrity to get a meeting with Pfizer as quickly as possible. The fact that the Pfizer meeting took over six weeks clearly set us back in 2021,” Bishop said.

It’s unclear whether earlier engagement with Pfizer could have secured a larger quantity of early vaccine doses for New Zealand.

New Zealand contracted to buy 1.5 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine candidate on October 6, 2020.

Earlier this year an Auditor-General Report noted that “the Taskforce wanted to purchase more doses of the Pfizer vaccine [in its first contract] but, at the time the agreement was signed, Pfizer was in negotiations with other potential purchasers and could not commit to supplying more doses of the vaccine to New Zealand. However, the purchase agreement included an option to purchase further doses of the vaccine if they became available.”

By October, New Zealand lagged many of its peers in signing so-called bilateral advance purchase agreements with drug companies for vaccine candidates.

In March the Government signed a second agreement with Pfizer to secure a further 8.5 million doses, likely on a delivery schedule for the second half of 2021.

The Government has declined to release the Pfizer contracts, citing commercial confidentiality. The first doses arrived in New Zealand in February, 2021, following Medsafe approval, and the Ministry of Health’s schedule shows that 1.5 million doses had arrived in the country by early July, 2021.

New Zealand has subsequently incurred a roughly estimated cost to the economy of some $10 billion through lockdowns and the Government has pinned reopening to very high levels of vaccination.

When the current Covid-19 Delta outbreak began on August 7, just 20 per cent of the population was fully vaccinated (that figure is now close to 70 per cent). The Government held the whole country in strict lockdown for three weeks from August 17, and has kept Auckland in lockdown for a further 11 weeks to date, albeit with some moderation of restrictions (intermittently other regions were also in lockdown during this time, while the balance of the country was under more mild restrictions).

Chris Hipkins, Covid-19 Response Minister, released the Pfizer letter in September, 2021, in response to parliamentary questions by Bishop.

When the letter was released, only its main recipient was noted: Dr Peter Crabtree, the chair of the vaccine taskforce.

However, in response to a subsequent written question by Bishop last month, Hipkins revealed that the letter, delivered by email, was copied to Minister Clark and also to Bloomfield.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has confirmed that it waited for funding from the Cabinet before meeting with Pfizer: “prior to entering into negotiations with Pfizer on an advanced purchase agreement officials had to secure significant funding from Cabinet. Funding of $600 million for advanced purchases was approved by Cabinet on 10 August …” Simon Rae, Manager of International Science Partnerships at MBIE said.

MBIE was the lead agency in the vaccine taskforce. The group was established by the Cabinet in May but a purchasing strategy to acquire a portfolio of vaccine candidates through advance purchase agreements was not set until the Cabinet’s August 10 meeting. Funding of $500,000 to establish a negotiating team and hire the necessary outside expertise was also agreed at this time.

Last month, Megan Woods, Minister of Research, Science and Innovation said the Cabinet waited until August to fund vaccine advance purchases and negotiation because of the situation’s complexity.

“Highly complex deals like this take time with officials needing to work through various scenarios, talk to international counterparts, and identify the costs involved and the resources required before negotiations could take place,” she said.

The taskforce also waited until after the August meeting to sign a confidential information disclosure agreement (CDA) with Pfizer on behalf of government agencies.

The agreement was signed on August 13, although it was backdated to July 28, the date on which it was received from Pfizer.

The Herald asked MBIE why the CDA was backdated; Rae did not respond directly to the question.

Following the first Pfizer deal of October, 2020, the taskforce reached advance purchase agreements with the makers of three other vaccine candidates. The Cabinet ultimately decided to use only the Pfizer product for its vaccine programme. Very small quantities of the AstraZeneca vaccine will be available shortly.

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