AUTH/3422/11/20 - Complainant v Pfizer

Alleged promotion of unlicensed Covid vaccine on LinkedIn

  • Received
    12 November 2020
  • Case number
  • Applicable Code year
  • Completed
    04 June 2021
  • No breach Clause(s)
  • Breach Clause(s)
  • Sanctions applied
    Undertaking received
  • Additional sanctions
  • Appeal
    No appeal

Case Summary

A complainant who described him/herself as a concerned UK health professional complained about the promotion of an unlicensed Covid-19 vaccine on LinkedIn by Pfizer Limited.

The complainant provided a link to, and a screenshot of, a named UK Pfizer employee’s personal LinkedIn profile. The employee had ‘liked’ a LinkedIn post from Pfizer which mentioned the company’s product prior to it receiving a marketing authorisation. The complainant alleged that this was promoting to the general public, the material had not been certified and the medicine referred to had yet to be licensed.

The detailed response from Pfizer is given below.

The Panel noted Pfizer’s submission that the original LinkedIn post was posted by the Pfizer US organisation via the Global Pfizer LinkedIn account. However, three days later the post was ‘liked’ by a Pfizer UK colleague via his/her personal LinkedIn account and in that regard the Panel considered that the UK employee’s engagement with the post, on the balance of probabilities, would have proactively disseminated the material to his/her LinkedIn connections which would predominantly be within the UK, and therefore brought the LinkedIn post within the scope of the UK Code. The Panel noted Pfizer’s submission that the employee had made an error and acted contrary to company guidelines by interacting with the post.

The Panel noted Pfizer’s submission that, following emergency use authorisation, the purchase of its Covid-19 vaccine was managed centrally by the UK Government and not by individual health professionals and so in that regard the company considered that it was difficult to see how liking the LinkedIn article could impact the prescription, recommendation, administration, purchase, sale or supply of the medicine. The Panel noted, however, that the Code applied to the promotion of medicines to members of the UK health professions and other relevant decision makers and in that regard provided no exemptions related to how a medicine was made available or accessed.

The Panel did not know how many connections the named employee had on LinkedIn and if they were all health professionals; the company made no submission in that regard. However, as it was a personal LinkedIn account, the Panel considered that on the balance of probabilities it was likely that the Pfizer UK employee’s connections would include UK members of the public as well as UK health professionals.

The Panel noted Pfizer’s submission that on 2 December 2020 the vaccine was granted temporary emergency use authorisation to supply in the UK by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) under Regulation 174 of the Human Medicines Regulation. The Panel noted that the original LinkedIn post which had been ‘liked’ by the Pfizer UK employee in November 2020, and thus on the balance of probabilities proactively disseminated to his/her connections on LinkedIn, announced that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine candidate, based on an interim analysis, had shown efficacy against Covid-19. It was noted that efficacy along with safety and consistent manufacturing were required before the company could file for Emergency Use Authorisation and that this was the first critical step towards a ‘safe and effective vaccine’. In the Panel’s view it was clear that the Pfizer vaccine was not yet licensed and thus Pfizer did not have a prescription only medicine available in November 2020 when the LinkedIn post in question was ‘liked’ by the UK employee. Clause 26.1 only applied to prescription only medicines. On that very narrow technical point the Panel ruled no breach of the Code.

However, the Panel considered that the Pfizer UK employee’s ‘like’ of the LinkedIn post, which discussed the positive efficacy results of Pfizer’s unlicensed Covid-19 vaccine, and, on the balance of probabilities its subsequent proactive dissemination to all of his/her connections, constituted promotion of the vaccine prior to the grant of its marketing authorisation. A breach of the Code was ruled.

The Panel considered that by liking the Pfizer US post and thus placing it on his/her personal LinkedIn account and, on the balances of probabilities, disseminating it to his/her connections which would likely include health professionals, the Pfizer UK employee had created his/her own promotional material which had not been certified and a breach of the Code was ruled.

The Panel understood that employees might feel inclined to endorse articles related to their senior colleagues on LinkedIn or their company’s corporate social media posts but noted that depending on the content such activity might or might not fall within the scope of the Code. Companies would be well advised to cover the possibility of that activity in their social media policies. This was particularly important if UK employees were likely to follow the social media accounts of colleagues in countries that had codes, laws and regulations that differed to the UK. In that regard the Panel noted that Pfizer had issued UK Social Media Guidelines which instructed employees not to interact (‘like’, share or comment) with content posted by Pfizer outside of the UK because such content might not meet requirements of the UK Code. That instruction was illustrated with a Pfizer Inc LinkedIn example. The Panel thus considered that the instructions to staff were clear and unambiguous. The employee in question had completed training on the guidelines in October 2019.

The Panel noted its comments and rulings above and considered that it was thus unfortunate that Pfizer had been badly let down by one of its UK employees not following company guidelines upon which he/she had been trained; an action that resulted in the creation of uncertified promotional material for an unlicensed medicine being proactively disseminated on LinkedIn. In that regard high standards had not been maintained. A breach of the Code was ruled.