Former Primer Minister Kevin Rudd had a Zoom meeting with the head of Pfizer, Albert Bourla, eight days before the Australian government managed to expedite shipments of the company’s COVID-19 vaccine, the ABC reports.
So while Scott Morrison spent all of last Friday gloating and equivocating about the new agreement (which prompted Pfizer itself to set the record straight in a statement), we may actually have Kevin Rudd to thank.
The meeting was prompted by Aussie business figures based in the US who wanted to see if backchannel interventions could help speed up Australia’s woeful vaccine rollout. An executive told them that Pfizer wasn’t happy about dealing with relatively junior Aussie bureaucrats and that someone much higher up would need to woo the company, hence why the former PM was chosen.
After the meeting, Rudd wrote a letter to Morrison explaining what went down.
“I also used the call as an opportunity to ask Dr Bourla [who is a vet] whether there was any possible way, given Pfizer’s current international contractual obligations, to advance the dispatch of significant quantities of the Pfizer vaccine to Australia as early as possible in the third quarter this year,” Rudd told Morrison in the letter, which was leaked to the ABC by someone.
“My understanding was that there were current contractual arrangements with the Australian government to deliver a total 40 million doses by the end of 2021. I did so not as a representative of the Australian government, but purely in my private capacity as an Australian citizen who cares for his country’s wellbeing.
“Dr Bourla indicated that they had limited flexibility because of their existing supply obligations around the world. Nonetheless, he also indicated that a number of their manufacturing facilities were producing ahead of schedule. In response to my representations, Dr Bourla said he would personally look at ‘what further might be able to be done’. I thanked Dr Bourla for that.
“Dr Bourla indicated that, if it became physically possible to bring forward delivery, he would require a further formal contractual request from the Australian government to that effect. I replied that that was understandable. I added, of course, that would be a matter for the Australian government and that I would pass this on to you.
While Rudd didn’t get an official reply from Morrison, eight days later the PM announced that delivery of 150,000 or so Pfizer doses had been successfully brought forward as Sydney grapples with rising case numbers.
A spokesperson for Health Minister Greg Hunt told the ABC: “While we were made aware of Mr Rudd’s approach, we are not aware this approach had any impact on the outcome.”
They also stressed that Morrison did meet with Pfizer Australia executives including the company’s local managing director Anne Harris.
Still, surely Rudd’s initiative didn’t hurt.
This all could’ve been avoided if the government had simply secured large supplies from a diverse vaccine portfolio in the first place.
The Guardian spoke to Pfizer’s former head of global R&D, John LaMattina, who called the Australian government’s initial lacklustre contract with the company “unconscionable”.
“Once the amazing and unprecedented efficacy of the mRNA vaccines was established, ordering a mere 10m doses was unconscionable,” he said.
“When both Pfizer and Moderna demonstrated the potent efficacy of their vaccines, every country should immediately have reached out to these companies to place their orders.
“In the case of Australia, enough vaccine to inoculate its entire population over the age of 18 should have been done at once. Assuming that is about 20m Australians, this would have cost about US$780 million.
“How much has Australia spent on COVID-19 relief packages?”
A pharmaceutical giant shouldn’t toy with an entire country’s vaccine supplies because its CEO and Chairman doesn’t feel sufficiently ~respected~. But that’s where we’ve ended up, so it was nice of Rudd to step in.