BioNTech, the German pharmaceutical company that partnered with Pfizer to produce a highly-lucrative COVID-19 vaccine, pressured Twitter to silence activists organizing against big pharma, new emails obtained by The Intercept show.
Twitter lobbyist Nina Morschhaeuser warned her colleagues on multiple Twitter teams that BioNTech was concerned about an activist campaign aimed at removing restrictions on vaccine intellectual property and patents to make the shots more accessible in the developing world, emails reviewed by The Intercept show. The German government also alerted Twitter to concerns about the campaign via its Federal Office for Information Security.
1. New piece from the TWITTER FILES.
How the pharmaceutical industry lobbied social media to shape content around vaccine policy.
The push included direct pressure from Pfizer partner BioNTech to censor activists demanding low-cost generic vaccines for low-income countries.
— Lee Fang (@lhfang) January 16, 2023
Morschhaeuser and the German government first flagged the campaign in December 2020. The hashtags #PeoplesVaccine and #JoinCTAP were specifically targeted.
Representatives for the company and the German government didn’t only flag possible concerns. BioNTech spokeswoman Jasmina Alatovic specifically asked Twitter to “hide” tweets from activists, raising particular concerns about tweets sent to the company’s main account, the emails show.
From the time that COVID-19 vaccines first became available, activists worked to try and convince manufacturers and governments to waive intellectual property protections and share patents so that more manufacturers could produce a “generic vaccine” that could be distributed to poorer countries more widely and at a lower cost. The hashtag #JoinCTAP refers to the World Health Organization’s initiative called COVID-19 Technology Access Pool, aimed at sharing therapeutic and vaccine technology.
The effort ultimately failed. Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna maintained a near-monopoly on COVID-19 vaccines in many parts of the world, including major markets like the United States. Pfizer and BioNTech recorded $37 billion in revenue from their vaccine during 2021, while Moderna pocketed $17.7 billion during the same time.
It’s unclear from the emails what actions Twitter did or did not take to target the activists in question. Some Twitter employees remarked that they did not appear to be violating the platforms terms of service in any way, and at one point a member of Twitter’s safety team asked for more examples to review. (RELATED: ‘Pushed By Elements Of The Kremlin’: State Dept. Defends Labeling Lab Leak ‘Foreign Disinformation,’ Flagging Tweets On Subject)
Pharmaceutical companies and their allies engaged in an aggressive lobbying campaign to shut down dissent against pro-vaccine policies, according to The Intercept. Biotechnology Innovation Organization, a vaccine industry lobbying group, spent more than $1 million funding an effort to flag “misinformation” on social media. Some of the flagged posts were indeed verifiable falsehoods, such as claims that the vaccines were designed to kill people. However, other tweets that questioned policies like vaccine mandates were also flagged.