Labor obtained the documents under freedom of information and the opposition health spokesman Mark Butler said they showed the government “took a deliberate ‘wait and see’ approach to vaccine deals”, a claim Hunt rejected in a statement late Wednesday.
Inadequate supplies of Pfizer slowed the rollout, becoming an increasing problem after AstraZeneca was set back by health warnings for some age groups and resultant hesitancy among many people.
The government announced in November last year it had an agreement to obtain ten million Pfizer doses. More were subsequently purchased, but the supply timetable left persistent shortages.
The government scrambled to bring forward some of the Pfizer doses and recently Scott Morrison intervened with some vaccine diplomacy to get extra doses from Poland, Singapore and Britain. Efforts to get doses from the US failed.
The documents include a letter from the managing director of Pfizer Australia to Hunt dated June 30 2020 requesting “a meeting with you to open discussions regarding your planning for potential COVID-19 vaccination programs”.
“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 Australia and continue to build a strong partnership for the future.”
The letter said Pfizer would “be in touch to schedule a meeting. I look forward to meeting you and working with you into the future.”
It canvassed progress on developing a mRNA-based vaccine that, if approved, “could be deployed at unprecedented speed for the prevention of COVID-19 infection”.
The letter foreshadowed Pfizer had the potential to supply millions of vaccine doses by the end of 2020, subject to technical success and regulatory approvals and hundred of millions in 2021.
A covering email from a Pfizer representative noted a request for a formal engagement opportunity with members of the Vaccines Taskforce.
Senior members of Pfizer’s global leadership team would be available for this “particularly if the Minister and/or Departmental leadership can be involved,” it said.
“As the vaccine development landscape is moving swiftly, including through engagements with other nations, I am requesting this meeting occur at the earliest opportunity,” the email said.
On July 3 Lisa Schofield, first assistant secretary, health economics and research division, in the health department, wrote to say she was managing the whole of government work on COVID vaccine and would appreciate an opportunity to talk about Pfizer’s plans.
Pfizer wanted a confidentiality agreement for any detailed talks, which would include several senior global representatives. The alternative it put up was a more general exploratory session, with local Pfizer representatives, including the MD of Pfizer Australia.
Schofield said the confidentiality agreement was being considered, although it was not the government’s usual practice to sign such documents. She proposed the more general session adding “we can always line up subsequent ones as needed”.
On July 23 Pfizer drew Schofield’s attention to “recent news of Pfizer’s agreements with the UK and US on vaccine supply”.
Hunt said in a statement that “both Pfizer and the Health Department have consistently confirmed, including on the public record at Senate Estimates, that the Australian government entered into formal discussions on the purchase of vaccines, as soon as the company was in a position to do so, and were in discussions prior to this”.
“When formal discussions began, no country had a contract with Pfizer.”
Hunt said there had been regular discussions with the minister’s office and Pfizer, including a meeting on 26 June 2020, initiated by his office. This was referenced in an email in the documents, and was followed by the June 30 letter, he said.
“The Australian government moved immediately to formal negotiations with the first step being to agree and negotiate a Confidentiality Disclosure Agreement.”
Hunt said the reference to millions of doses was about global capacity, not to what was on offer to Australia.