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Pfizer-funded talks falsely suggested rival vaccines might cause cancer, experts say


The pharmaceutical giant says that it had no input into the online tutorials and no intention to sabotage competitors

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Pfizer Inc. funded presentations to Canadian health professionals earlier this year that claimed rival COVID-19 vaccines could cause cancer and were inappropriate for immunocompromised people — claims that experts say were not true.

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The pharmaceutical giant stresses that it had no input into the online tutorials and no intention to sabotage competitors, but at least one prominent scientist has said the presentations spread the kind of misinformation that fuels vaccine hesitancy.

The talks given to groups of pharmacists, doctors and other health workers between at least February and July of this year discussed the various COVID vaccines, though with a focus on Pfizer’s mRNA shot, one of the most effective, safe and widely used today.

A slide in the Powerpoint presentations listed two advantages for a different type of vaccine — which uses “viral vector” technology — and six disadvantages. The first claimed disadvantage was a risk that they could cause “chromosomal integration” and “oncogenesis” — turning healthy cells into cancerous ones. The second was that they could not be used on immunocompromised people.

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Viral vector vaccines employ a modified and harmless virus that, injected into the body, prompts cells to produce parts of the virus causing COVID, which then trigger an immune response to the pathogen.

Four experts surveyed by the National Post say the two disadvantage statements were untrue with respect to “non-replicating” viral vector vaccines — like those made by AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, China’s CanSino and others.

“These should be corrected,” said Dr. Mark Loeb, a molecular medicine professor at McMaster University, after viewing a Powerpoint deck still on the Canadian Pharmacists Association website this week. Loeb also sits on a Pfizer advisory board.

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Although AstraZeneca’s vaccine was one of the first approved and distributed in Canada, its use fell off dramatically in the wake of news about very rare blood clots among recipients, and as availability of the more-effective Pfizer and Moderna vaccines improved. Those mRNA shots are also considered better protection against the new Omicron variant. Yet AstraZeneca is one of the mostly widely deployed elsewhere in the world, with the company predicting three billion doses will have been delivered by year’s end.

The Canadian presentations were first reported by Britain’s Channel 4 and reporter Antony Barnett. Prof. Sir Andrew Pollard, part of the team that developed the AstraZeneca vaccine at Oxford University, was more blunt in discussing the claims made to Canadian professionals.

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“There’s huge risk of misinformation because anything that makes anyone hesitate about being vaccinated can risk their lives,” Pollard told Channel 4. “It can also create uncertainty with policy makers and that impacts not just the place where the misinformation is, but it can then be projected all over the world.”

The origin of the disadvantages list seems to be a scientific paper that one of its authors says Pfizer knew about last year. But the company denies that it “sought to undermine others’ scientific endeavours.”

After receiving requests for information on its vaccine from health professionals in Canada, it funded a “reputable medical communication agency” to develop an educational program with the guidance of a scientific advisory committee that was also at arm’s length, said company spokeswoman Christina Antoniou.

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“Pfizer did not provide presentation materials for this event and did not edit or influence the presentations,” she said. “Although we funded the program, it was otherwise independent of Pfizer.”

Antoniou would not name the third-party agency that Pfizer used.

Dr. George Zhanel, a medical microbiologist at the University of Manitoba, delivered one of the presentations to Ontario’s Hamilton Academy of Medicine in July and said Wednesday he prepared the tutorial “with no input from others.”

He said there’s discussion in the scientific literature of the risks mentioned in the disadvantages slide but “today we know it’s not an issue” and “not a worry.” Zhanel, who has previously disclosed having consulting, advisory board and speaking engagements with Pfizer and other pharmaceutical makers, said he mentioned the potential disadvantages but told the academy members there was no evidence for them.

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Muddying the issue, an almost identical table of viral-vector advantages and disadvantages appears in a paper published in June 2020 by three Canadian scientists. One of them worked as vaccine medical advisor at Pfizer Canada for seven years until 2018. But Craig Laferrière — who agreed the two controversial disadvantages would not apply to non-replicating viral vector vaccines like the COVID-19 shots made by AstraZeneca and others — said his work background had no influence on the article.

He also said he told contacts at Pfizer about the paper after it came out 18 months ago, but they said the company was already aware of it.

Marc-André Gagnon, a Carleton University professor who studies pharmaceutical industry practices, said he takes Pfizer’s claims of being independent from the education program with a grain of salt. Third-party firms funded by pharmaceutical corporations know they will continue getting work only if they produce commercial results for their clients, he argued.

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“The problem is fundamentally there is no medical communications company being hired to be as neutral as possible.”

The Post has reported previously , for instance, about how such companies once hosted presentations for doctors — funded by pharma businesses like Pfizer — that claimed generic versions of their drugs were inferior, an assertion some academic pharmacologists said is unfounded.

It’s a particular problem during the pandemic, when anti-vaccination groups could seize on inaccurate information — and cite an apparently credible source — to bolster their false claims, said Gagnon.

The Canadian Pharmacists’ Association said in a statement that it selected speakers for its Pfizer-funded webinar based on their expertise and asked them to base the talk on the emerging science, without bias. “Expert speakers have full editorial control over their presentation and are required to make full conflict disclosures,” the group said.

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As well as that online event and the Hamilton Academy of Medicine webinar, there’s evidence that a similar presentation was made to the Ottawa-Carleton Pharmacists Association . Dr. Angel Chu, an infectious disease professor at the University of Calgary and vice-chair of Immunize Canada, was listed as a presenter on at least two, but could not be reached for comment.

The audience may have been wider. Antoniou said she understands the talks were given to general practitioner doctors, nurses and other immunizers, pharmacists and others.

The slide listing viral vector vaccine advantages and disadvantages is part of presentations that otherwise seem innocuous.

Dr. Scott Halperin, whose Dalhousie University team was poised to test the CanSino vaccine until Chinese authorities refused to release any to Canada, said there’s no evidence of the claimed cancer-causing or immunocompromised disadvantages in such non-replicating virus vector shots.

Dr. Allison McGeer of Toronto’s St Michael’s Hospital, one of the country’s top virus experts, agreed, as did a fourth leading expert who asked not to be quoted by name. But that scientist said much has been learned since the March presentation — which is still online — that she reviewed for the National Post.

“You could question anything presented here, given how far the research has come in the intervening months.”

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