The world is in love with Pfizer and Moderna. The two pharmaceutical companies have each announced amazing results in their separate efforts to develop a coronavirus vaccine. Pfizer first announced that its product appeared to be 90 percent effective, only to be upstaged days later by Moderna and its claim of 94.5 percent. Pfizer then revised its efficacy rate to 95 percent.
Like everyone else, I am eager to see progress made in the fight against covid, but there is a part of me that wonders whether these announcements, coming in record-breaking time, are a bit too good to be true. Don’t get me wrong—I am not a vaccine skeptic. I recently got my flu shot and previously was inoculated against shingles and pneumonia.
Yet I am a wary when it comes to grand pronouncements by large corporations about advances that will generate vast amounts of profit. This is particularly the case with large drug companies, which have a long history of deception and malfeasance.
Pfizer is a prime example. Its track record is filled with cases in which it was accused of misleading regulators and the public about the safety of its products.
In the early 1990s, for example, Pfizer was embroiled in a controversy about scores of fatalities linked to heart valves produced by its Shiley division. In 1992 it agreed to pay up to $205 million to settle thousands of lawsuits. In 1994 the company agreed to pay $10.75 million to settle Justice Department charges that it lied to regulators in seeking approval for the valves.
In 2005 Pfizer had to stop advertising its arthritis medication Celebrex after a study showed that high doses were associated with an increased risk of heart attacks. Pfizer’s claims about the safety of the drug were further undermined when it came to light that the company had conducted a clinical trial back in 1999 that also pointed to the cardiac risk but which Pfizer kept secret.
Pfizer, which was a pioneer in the once controversial practice of advertising pharmaceuticals, has frequently been accused of making false or misleading claims about its products. It has paid millions of dollars to resolve state and federal allegations about these practices.
It has paid even larger amounts in cases involving allegations that the company promoted its drugs for uses not approved by the Food and Drug Administration. These include a $2.3 billion settlement in 2009 that covered criminal as well as civil allegations. Pfizer’s subsidiary Wyeth settled its own criminal-civil illegal marketing case for $490 million four years later. In 2016 Wyeth paid another $784 million to settle allegations that it reported false pricing information to the federal government.
Moderna has not been around long enough to get into much trouble, but other companies working on vaccines have track records similar to Pfizer’s. These include Johnson & Johnson, whose penalty total on Violation Tracker is $4.2 billion, AstraZeneca ($1.1 billion), GlaxoSmithKline ($4.4 billion) and Sanofi ($641 million).
We may have no choice but to depend on companies such as these to develop and produce the vaccines we need to overcome covid. Fortunately, their efficacy and safety claims will be subject to review by presumably independent experts before the vaccines are put into general distribution. I will continue to have my doubts about Pfizer, but I’m willing to trust Fauci.