Pfizer: six scandals to remember

Pfizer is likely to make huge profits from its COVID-19 vaccine but the greatest long-term benefit to the company may well be the positive PR it has received as a result. That PR was much-needed: before COVID-19, Pfizer had a toxic reputation even compared to other pharma companies. In the latest part of our ‘Vaccine Capitalism’ series, we remember why, with six of its biggest scandals. For a longer list read reports from US organisations Corp-Research, Good Jobs First and Drugwatch.

You can read the rest of our Vaccine Capitalism series, including analysis of how much money Pfizer may make from its vaccine, here.

1986: Pfizer had to withdraw an artificial heart valve from the market after defects led to it being implicated in over 300 deaths. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) withdrew its approval for the product in 1986 and Pfizer agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation after multiple lawsuits were brought against it.

2003: Pfizer has long been condemned for profiteering from AIDS drugs. In 2003 for example, it walked away from a licencing deal for its Rescriptor drug that would have made it cheaper for poorer countries.

2011: Pfizer was forced to pay compensation to families of children killed in the controversial Trovan drug trial. During the worst meningitis epidemic seen in Africa, in 1996, Pfizer ran a trial in Nigeria their new drug Trovan. Five of the 100 children who took Trovan died and it caused liver damage, while it caused lifelong disabilities in those who survived. But another group of 100 children were given the conventional “gold standard” meningitis antibiotic as a “control” group for comparison. Six of them also tragically died because, the families said, Pfizer had given them less than the recommended level of the conventional antibiotic in order to make Trovan look more effective.

2012: Pfizer had to pay around $1billion to settle lawsuits claiming its Prempro drug caused breast cancer. Prempro was used in hormone replacement therapy, usually for women going through the menopause. The settlements came after six years of trials and hardship for the women affected.

2013: Pfizer paid out $273 million to settle over 2,000 cases in the US that accused its smoking treatment drug Chantix of provoking suicidal and homicidal thoughts, self harm and severe psychological disorders. Pfizer was also accused of improperly excluding patients with a history of depression or other mental disturbances from trials for the drug. Later, in 2017, a coroner in Australia ruled that the drug had contributed to a man’s suicide. The man’s mother campaigned to change the label on the drug.

2020: Pfizer reached an agreement with thousands of customers of its depo-testosterone drug in 2018 after they sued it for increasing the likelihood of numerous issues, including heart attacks.