How a Pfizer vaccine press statement became CNN headline, became CDC’s optimistic vaccine policy.

By Paul Thacker

A viral video of CDC Director Rochelle Walensky discussing COVID-19 vaccines makes clear the pharmaceutical companies have been gaming pandemic policy by throwing out corporate press releases that reporters quickly gobble up and then regurgitate as scientific news. In this specific case, Pfizer’s press release came with a CNN logo. Additionally, Pfizer disclosed in an early 2021 earnings conference call that they were working to influence CDC vaccine policy—influence that evidence proves happened.

“Strikingly frank answer from CDC director Walensky on them being too bullish on vaccines early on,” tweeted Politico’s White House reporter, Alex Thompson, who seems to have uncovered the Walensky video.

Although it is unclear who Walensky is addressing, the 45 second video clip shows her seated in an office explaining how the CDC may have been too optimistic about vaccines.

Since last year, Walensky has been criticized for ignoring vaccine experts who advise the CDC and who have urged the greater caution in vaccine recommendations. In the video, Walensky appears to be tackling these concerns:

Could we have improved? Well, you know, I think … I can tell you where I was when the CNN feed came that it was 95% effective, um, the vaccine. So many of us wanted it to be helpful. Many of us wanted to say, “Okay, this is our ticket out.” Right? Now we’re done.

So I think we had, perhaps, too little caution and too much optimism, for some good things that came our way. I really do. I think all of us wanted this to be done.

Nobody said “waning” … when, “Oh well this vaccine’s gonna work.” Oh, well maybe it’ll work or it’ll wear off. Nobody said, “Well what if the next variant, it doesn’t … it doesn’t … it’s not as potent against the next variant.”

From context, it is clear Walensky is discussing Pfizer’s vaccine. On November 18, 2020, CNN ran this story by reporters Maggie Fox and Amanda Sealy, “Pfizer and BioNTech say final analysis shows coronavirus vaccine is 95% effective with no safety concerns.”

What is remarkable about CNN’s story—which Walensky says influenced her thinking—is that CNN merely republished the facts, figures, and quotes from Pfizer’s press release sent out earlier that day: “Pfizer and BioNTech Conclude Phase 3 Study of COVID-19 Vaccine Candidate, Meeting All Primary Efficacy Endpoints.”

CNN’s article contains no independent experts analyzing Pfizer’s statement, which is just a self-report of the company’s vaccine data—data that had not been submitted to any agency or journal for independent verification. To compare CNN to Pfizer, here’s some passages from the Pfizer and BioNTech (which developed the vaccine) press release:

Primary efficacy analysis demonstrates BNT162b2 to be 95% effective against COVID-19 beginning 28 days after the first dose;170 confirmed cases of COVID-19 were evaluated, with 162 observed in the placebo group versus 8 in the vaccine group

There were 10 severe cases of COVID-19 observed in the trial, with nine of the cases occurring in the placebo group and one in the BNT162b2 vaccinated group.

To date, the Data Monitoring Committee for the study has not reported any serious safety concerns related to the vaccine. 

“We are grateful that the first global trial to reach the final efficacy analysis mark indicates that a high rate of protection against COVID-19 can be achieved very fast after the first 30 µg dose, underscoring the power of BNT162 in providing early protection,” said Ugur Sahin, M.D., CEO and Co-founder of BioNTech. “These achievements highlight the potential of mRNA as a new drug class. Our objective from the very beginning was to design and develop a vaccine that would generate rapid and potent protection against COVID-19 with a benign tolerability profile across all ages.

All CNN reporters Maggie Fox and Amanda Sealy did was recast these Pfizer passages, or add quotes and then attribute the sentences to “companies said” or to an executive from Pfizer or BioNTech. Some examples from CNN that mirror the previous passages from Pfizer’s press release:

The company counted 170 cases of coronavirus infection among volunteers who took part in the trial. It said 162 infections were in people who got placebo, or plain saline shots, while eight cases were in participants who got the actual vaccine. That works out to an efficacy of 95%, Pfizer said.

“There were 10 severe cases of Covid-19 observed in the trial, with nine of the cases occurring in the placebo group and one in the BNT162b2 vaccinated group.” BNT162b2 is the experimental name for the vaccine.

An independent group has been keeping an eye on results and side-effects. “To date, the Data Monitoring Committee for the study has not reported any serious safety concerns related to the vaccine,” the companies said.

“The rapid protection this vaccine provides — combined with its tolerability profile in all age groups studied so far — should help make this vaccine an important tool to address the current pandemic,” Sahin said in the release.

It’s pretty ugly, isn’t it? Pfizer’s press release became CNN headline, became CDC pandemic policy. But if you’re at CNN swallowing and then regurgitating corporate press statements, why not just run the Pfizer original?

The Pfizer original is fresher, more honest, and less likely to cause public policy indigestion.

Months after CNN’s press release of Pfizer’s press release, we learn more about Pfizer shaping CDC policy. When Pfizer executives addressed investors at a fourth-quarter 2020 earnings conference call, an analyst with Cantor Fitzgerald asked:

And then how do you think about that 95% efficacy rate in light of mutations? And the last question is on your [other vaccine] PCV20, if it’s approved, what do you expect the ACIP recommendation to be your — what would you ideally like it to be? 

Believe it or not, Cantor Fitzgerald analysts are quite prescient asking about future mutations—a serious problem, since Pfizer’s vaccine is not working so well today against the variants. Of course, this makes one wonder, “If an analyst at Cantor Fitzgerald was worried about mutations back in early 2021, why wasn’t Walensky at the CDC?”

The analyst also asks about ACIP, which is the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, a group of outside experts which advises the CDC on vaccines. Here’s how Pfizer responded:

And then to your question about ACIP. Of course, we’re working closely with the FDA for approval and with the CDC at the right moments in time to get the right recommendation.

So what did Pfizer do to get the “right recommendations” from the CDC on their vaccines? We don’t know exactly, but we do know Pfizer got exactly what they wanted from Walensky.

Here’s what STAT News reported last December:

This is the third time the CDC director has either overruled the ACIP or avoided asking the group’s advice on a Covid booster-related issue. In September, when it narrowly voted against offering boosters to healthy people aged 18 to 64 at high risk of contracting Covid because of where they worked or lived, Walensky overruled the group. In mid-November the group voted to recommend that people 18 to 49 who have no underlying health conditions “may” — rather than “should” — get a booster. Walensky signed off on that recommendation, but the agency quietly changed it 10 days later to strengthen the recommendation to say this group “should” get boosted.

To the analysts at Cantor Fitzgerald: next time you’re on an investor call with Pfizer, don’t worry your pretty heads about CDC advisory groups stifling the roll out of Pfizer vaccines and impeding corporate profits. Pfizer has that covered. Obviously.

Some can look at this sequence of events and dismiss it with a cynical But this is how it works. Newspapers always regurgitate corporate talking points. In fact, a friend who is a journalism professor did that when we spoke about this yesterday.

But you rarely get such direct evidence of a corporation influencing federal policy by laundering their press release through media outlets like CNN. Further, republishing press releases seems a pervasive practice in how the media covers COVID-19 vaccines—meaning, they don’t do much reporting. This has been obvious since late 2020.

When Matt Taibbi called me to discuss  an investigation I wrote on problems with Pfizer’s clinical trial, here’s how I explained this exact process happening across the media:

That’s in part what’s going on with this story about Pfizer. It’s the same shit that has been going on with these goddamn vaccines. Because if you watch and see what happened when these vaccines rolled out, you would see there’d be a story in The New York Times about, “Pfizer announces,” or “Pfizer Expected To Ask for Authorization,” blah, blah, blah. And then about four or five paragraphs, you go down and you realize: “Wait, this is just a Pfizer press release.” This isn’t a study or anything. This is a Pfizer press release. You just reported a fucking press release as a news story.

They do press release journalism. You can argue that’s good or bad, but what that does — and no one talks about this — is it creates all this social pressure on the FDA for approval. It creates all this expectancy amongst the public that the product is coming. So, by the time you go in front of an FDA panel for authorization, it’s already been churned up in the media, they’ve got a month of positive press.

They’ve been running this game from the beginning. They’re just much better at it now.

On a final note, CNN Business picked Pfizer’s Albert Bourla as the CNN Business CEO of the Year, and multiple outlets report the company’s revenues have doubled to $81bn thanks to COVID-19 vaccine.

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