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This week in Tortoise: Pfizer’s War

This week in Tortoise: Pfizer’s War

Sometimes it feels that Tortoise really can catch up on the stories that other newsrooms race past.

Last week, Lara Spirit and Giles Whittell reported that Boris Johnson skipped the global vaccine summit hosted by President Biden. Some newsrooms reported he was there; others just assumed it. After all, the UK prime minister is president of the G7 and had promised to lead a global effort to vaccinate the world by the end of next year. But Johnson wasn’t there. He’d double-booked himself.

Today, Ceri Thomas investigates Pfizer’s War, one company’s campaign to profit from the pandemic. Given it’s the biggest story in the healthcare business, it’s also gone strangely under-reported.  

Pfizer was the first pharmaceutical company to license a vaccine against the virus. But vaccine development was only one front in its Covid battle: the Slow Newscast this week examines Pfizer’s behind-the-scenes efforts to win the battle for vaccine business.

  • It shows how Pfizer-funded research and one of Pfizer’s own board directors publicly questioned the effectiveness and safety of AstraZeneca’s vaccine. Ceri got hold of a letter Astra wrote to Pfizer to complain of the “false, misleading, speculative and derogatory statements about the AstraZeneca vaccine… They have also caused confusion and misimpressions that pose a serious public health threat around the world.”
  • It reports on the frustrations of global public health officials, who complain of delay after delay in getting Pfizer vaccines to people in the poorest countries, stoking the suspicion that the company was dragging its feet on low-cost sales in order to sell doses at a high margin to developed countries.
  • And it describes a company that has had a bumper year on the stock market, but taken a dent to its reputation: an “extreme form of rapacious capitalism,” to quote one of Ceri’s sources, that has put profits ahead of the common good.

So Pfizer’s War has been brutal. And it isn’t over yet. Please listen to our podcast to understand the current troop movements.

And it’s a big week of ThinkIns.

  • We’re holding the Tortoise Cyber Summit on Thursday. Can we stay ahead of cybercrime in a digital age? We’ll be joined by an extraordinary group of people who are, certainly, trying: Jen Easterly, President Biden’s cybersecurity tsar;  Eugene Kaspersky, the co-founder of the cybersecurity company Kaspersky; Marietje Schaake, the president of the CyberPeace Institute; and Dmitri Alperovitch, the co-founder of Crowdstrike – and, hopefully, by you too. You can see the full programme for the day, and book digital tickets, here.
  • Also on Thursday, after the summit finishes, Caitlin Moran will be visiting our newsroom for a chat about… well, I hope, anything she likes.  In-person tickets sold out weeks ago, but there are still online tickets available, so please do come along.  

As for the rest of the week:

  • This evening, after last week’s global vaccine summit, we continue our Arms Race campaign by asking: what next?
  • Tomorrow, at 1pm BST, the former president of Google China and author of AI Superpowers, Kai-Fu Lee, joins us live from Beijing for a digital ThinkIn that draws on his new work of speculative semi-fiction to address the question: what will life be like in 2041?
  • At 5pm BST on Wednesday, as part of our Accelerating Net Zero coalition, we look at the ground beneath our feet and its potential to absorb carbon: can soil save the planet?
  • As the Labour Party Conference winds up in Brighton on Wednesday and Britain finds itself out of gas but fired up over Brexit, Ed Balls – the former Labour MP whose CV ranges from shadow chancellor of the Exchequer and education secretary to a spell on Strictly and a memoir of recipes – will be with us in the newsroom. Please do come along

Have a very good week.


James Harding
Editor & co-founder