AUTH/3437/12/20 - Complainant v Pfizer

Alleged promotion of Covid vaccine on LinkedIn

  • Received
    04 December 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 a Covid-19 vaccine on LinkedIn by Pfizer Ltd.

The complainant provided a screenshot of, and a link to, a named Pfizer UK employee’s personal LinkedIn account which included a LinkedIn post from a senior executive at Pfizer UK.

Above a photograph of someone’s upper arm about to be injected with a syringe, the LinkedIn post at issue read:

‘So proud of the whole Pfizer team. What an achievement #vaccines #proud’.

Beneath the photograph, the post included the statement ‘Covid Pfizer vaccine approved for use next week in the UK’ and appeared to link to a article.

The complainant referred to promotion to the general public and noted that there appeared to be two senior figures at Pfizer who were continuing to flout the rules in a pretty blatant manner.

The detailed response from Pfizer is given below.

The Panel noted Pfizer’s submission that the senior UK employee who created the LinkedIn post on his/her personal account had around 900 professional contacts, approximately 10% of whom were health professionals and the second UK employee who liked the post had around 500 professional contacts, approximately 5% of whom were health professionals. The contacts of both employees thus included health professionals and members of the public. The LinkedIn post contained a link to a BBC news article entitled ‘Covid-19: Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine judged safe for use in UK’. The Panel considered that the first senior employee had effectively created his/her own material about the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for which the company would be held responsible under the Code but noted Pfizer’s submission that neither the content of the LinkedIn post, nor the article to which it linked had been certified by Pfizer for distribution in the UK.

The Panel noted Pfizer’s submission that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was granted temporary authorisation in the UK by the MHRA on 2 December 2020 and the material at issue was posted the same day on the senior UK employees personal LinkedIn account.

The Panel noted Pfizer’s submission that given that the information contained in the shared BBC news article was widely available and as the vaccine could only be purchased by central Government for administration according to the strict criteria determined by the JCVI, it was difficult to see how the sharing of the BBC news article could have had any impact on the consumption, purchase, or use of the vaccine by a member of the public.

The Panel, however, noted the broad definition of promotion as stated in Clause 1.2; it encompassed any activity undertaken by a pharmaceutical company or with its authority which promoted the administration, consumption, prescription, purchase, recommendation, sale, supply or use of its medicines.

The Panel noted that the LinkedIn post at issue referred to the approval of the Covid Pfizer vaccine for use the following week in the UK and linked to an article which stated in its headline that the vaccine had been judged ‘safe’ for use in the UK. In that regard the Panel noted that the Code required pharmaceutical companies not to use the word ‘safe’ without qualification.

The Panel noted that whilst the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine had been granted a temporary authorisation to permit its supply, the vaccine had not been granted a marketing authorisation and so had not been legally classified as a prescription only medicine. The Panel noted that Clause 26.1 only applied to prescription only medicines; the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine had not been classified as such and so, on that very narrow technical point, the Panel did not consider that a prescription only medicine had been promoted to the public and no breach of the Code was ruled.

The Panel noted that Pfizer had a UK Social Media Policy dated December 2019 which stated that for all social media activity, the audience should be considered as the general public. It was also stated that any direct or indirect reference to, or link to information about licensed or unlicensed medicines (Pfizer or non-Pfizer medicines) must be avoided. It further stated that 3rd party social media related to Pfizer business which included colleague posts as an example could only be ‘liked’ or shared if they did not include direct or indirect reference to, or link to information about licensed or unlicensed medicines (Pfizer or non-Pfizer). The Panel thus considered that the instructions to staff were clear and unambiguous. The senior employee who created the LinkedIn post completed training on the policy in November 2019 and the employee who ‘liked’ the post completed the training in October 2019. The Panel noted Pfizer’s submission that the two employees had made an error of judgement and the LinkedIn activity in question had been removed following receipt of the complaint.

The Panel considered that it appeared that both employees had acted in breach of company policy and training resulting in the promotion of the vaccine prior to the grant of its marketing authorisation on LinkedIn. The Panel was particularly concerned that the person who had created the initial LinkedIn post was a senior employee. High standards had not been maintained and a breach of the Code was ruled.

The Panel considered that a senior employee placing an uncertified promotional post on his/her personal LinkedIn account which linked to an article about the company’s vaccine prior to the grant of its marketing authorisation which was ‘liked’ by a further employee, meant that Pfizer had brought discredit upon and reduced confidence in the pharmaceutical industry; a breach of Clause 2 was ruled.