The pharmaceutical industry lobbied social media to restrict activists calling for low-cost generic COVID-19 vaccines and even funded the effort, journalist Lee Fang reported Monday in the latest installment of the Twitter Files.
"The push included direct pressure from Pfizer partner BioNTech to censor activists," Fang wrote in a Twitter thread.
Early in the pandemic, a push was made to make sure all people would be able to get vaccinated, so an international partnership was established to share ideas, technology and new medicines, Fang noted.
"But global drug giants saw the crisis as an opportunity for unprecedented profit," he writes. "Behind closed doors, pharma launched a massive lobbying blitz to crush any effort to share patents/IP for new covid-related medicine, including therapeutics and vaccines."
BIO, the lobbying group for biopharma, including Moderna and Pfizer, wrote to the Biden administration, demanding the United States place sanctions on any country that tried to violate its patent and make generic low-cost COVID medicines or vaccines.
They also put pressure on social media companies. The developer of Pfizer's vaccine, BioNTech, contacted Twitter, asking it to directly censor any users tweeting at them for generic low-cost vaccines. The request was backed by the government of Germany, where BioNTech is based.
A European lobbyist even asked Twitter's content moderation team to monitor the accounts of Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and also hashtags such as #peoplesvaccine, according to the report.
The request warned of potential "fake accounts" swamping the site with that hashtag and others.
Terry Brough, a 74-year-old retiree in Britain, whom Fang verified as a real person, was flagged for tweeting:
"9/10 people in poor countries are going to MISS OUT on a #COVID19 vaccine next year. Will @Pfizer, @BioNTech_Group @moderna_tx & @AstraZeneca #JoinCTAP to ensure that everyone, everywhere can be safe? We need a #PeoplesVaccine!"
Multiple Twitter employees said in intraoffice messages that none of tweets constituted abuse, yet Twitter continued monitoring.
In a different action, the lobbying group BIO gave full funding of $1.3 million to a content moderation campaign to set content moderation rules for Twitter for COVID "misinformation."
While many of the tweets the campaign focused on were "truly unhinged misinfo, like claims that vaccines include microchips," Fang writes, others "were more of a grey area, like vaccine passports & vaccine mandates, policies that coerce vaccination."
But the effort to remove COVID misinformation did not apply to the drug companies themselves.
"When big pharma wildly exaggerated the risks of creating low-cost generic COVID vaccines," they were not flagged, according to Fang. "The rules applied only to critics of industry."
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