In mid-December 2020, Nina Morschhaeuser, a lobbyist for Twitter in Europe, emailed colleagues with a dire warning. The drugmaker BioNTech, along with the German government, had contacted her with news of an imminent “campaign targeting the pharmaceutical companies developing the COVID-19 vaccine,” she wrote.
“The authorities are warning about ‘serious consequences’ of the action, i.e. posts and a flood of comments ‘that may violate TOS’ as well as the ‘takeover of user accounts’ are to be expected,” wrote Morschhaeuser. “Especially the personal accounts of the management of the vaccine manufacturers are said to be targeted. Accordingly, fake accounts could also be set up.”
The campaign they were concerned about was the launch of an international push to force the drug industry to share the intellectual property and patents associated with coronavirus vaccine development. Making the patents available, in turn, would allow countries across the world to swiftly manufacture generic vaccines and other low-cost therapeutics to deal with the ongoing pandemic.
Morschhaeuser, while alerting several site integrity and safety teams at Twitter, forwarded on an email from BioNTech spokesperson Jasmina Alatovic, who asked Twitter to “hide” activist tweets targeting her company’s account over a period of two days.
Morschhaeuser flagged the corporate accounts of Pfizer, BioNTech, Moderna, and AstraZeneca for her colleagues to monitor and shield from activists. Morschhaeuser also asked colleagues to monitor the hashtags #PeoplesVaccine and #JoinCTAP, a reference to the World Health Organization’s Covid-19 Technology Access Pool, a program promoted by developing countries to accelerate the development of vaccines through the equitable sharing of research and manufacturing capacity. She noted that the group Global Justice Now was spearheading the action with an online sign-up form.
It is not clear to what extent Twitter took any action on BioNTech’s request. In response to Morschhaeuser’s inquiry, several Twitter officials chimed in, debating what action could or could not be taken. Su Fern Teo, a member of the company’s safety team, noted that a quick scan of the activist campaign showed nothing that violated the company’s terms of service, and asked for more examples to “get a better sense of the content that may violate our policies.”
But it shows the extent to which pharmaceutical giants engaged in a global lobbying blitz to ensure corporate dominance over the medical products that became central to combatting the pandemic. Ultimately, the campaign to share Covid vaccine recipes around the world failed.
The Intercept accessed Twitter’s emails after the company’s billionaire owner, Elon Musk, granted access to several reporters in December. This is the second story I have reported through access to these files. The first centered on the Pentagon’s network of fake Twitter accounts used to spread U.S. narratives in the Middle East.
In reporting this story, as with the last, Twitter did not provide unfettered access to company information; rather, they allowed me to make requests without restriction that were then fulfilled on my behalf by an attorney, meaning that the search results may not have been exhaustive. I did not agree to any conditions governing the use of the documents, and I made efforts to authenticate and contextualize the documents through further reporting. The redactions in the embedded documents in this story were done by The Intercept to protect privacy, not Twitter.
Twitter did not respond to a request for comment. BioNTech’s Alatovic, in response to a request for comment, stressed that the firm “takes its societal responsibility seriously and is investing in solutions to improve the health of people regardless of their income.”
A spokesperson for the German Federal Office for Information Security, the cybersecurity agency that Morschhaeuser said contacted Twitter on behalf of BioNTech, emailed The Intercept after publication of this article to say that the agency had raised a “cyber security alert” out of concern the People’s Vaccine campaign amounted to a “DDoS attack.” The agency further claimed that this warning “independent of any content-related or political orientation of an online campaign such as the one planned here.”
In November, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism published a lengthy report showing that pharmaceutical companies went to great lengths to stifle efforts to share pandemic-related patents and IP, including threats to the leadership of Belgium, Colombia, and Indonesia. The Intercept has also detailed the domestic lobbying push to block support for a special World Trade Organization waiver necessary for the rapid creation of generic pandemic medicine. German media has similarly reported on the aggressive effort by BioNTech to build support from the German government in opposing the waiver at the WTO.
In May 2021, the Biden administration reversed its earlier position and that of the Trump administration and voiced support for the WTO waiver, making the U.S. one of the largest wealthy countries to support the idea, backed by a coalition led by India and South Africa. But infighting at the international trade body, along with staunch opposition from other wealthy countries, prevented any effective progress on the issue.
The largely successful assault against the creation of generic vaccines resulted in an unprecedented explosion in profit for a few select biopharmaceutical drug interests. Pfizer and BioNTech generated a staggering $37 billion in revenue from its shared mRNA vaccine in 2021 alone, making it one of the most lucrative drug products of all time.
Moderna, which made $17.7 billion from vaccine sales in 2021, recently announced its plan to hike the price of its Covid shot by about 400 percent.
The high cost of vaccines and concentrated ownership meant supplies in 2021 were hoarded in the European Union, United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Japan, and other wealthy countries, while much of the developing world was forced to wait for excess vaccines the following year.
“To try and stifle digital dissent during a pandemic, when tweets and emails are some of the only forms of protest available to those locked in their homes, is deeply sinister.”
“For more than two years, a global movement has been speaking out against pharmaceutical greed and demanding that everyone, everywhere has the tools to combat pandemics,” said Maaza Seyoum, a campaigner for the People’s Vaccine Alliance.
“Whatever nasty tricks companies and governments pull,” she added, “we cannot and will not be silenced.”
Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now, noted that at the time of BioNTech’s censorship request, much of the world was under various lockdown orders, making digital forms of protest all the more vital for influencing public policy.
“To try and stifle digital dissent during a pandemic, when tweets and emails are some of the only forms of protest available to those locked in their homes, is deeply sinister,” he said.
The BioNTech request was not the only channel through which vaccine-makers sought to shape content moderation actions at Twitter.
Stronger, a campaign run by Public Good Projects, a public health nonprofit specializing in large-scale media monitoring programs, regularly communicated with Twitter on regulating content related to the pandemic. The firm worked closely with the San Francisco social media giant to help develop bots to censor vaccine misinformation and, at times, sent direct requests to Twitter with lists of accounts to censor and verify.
Internal Twitter emails show regular correspondence between an account manager at Public Good Projects, and various Twitter officials, including Todd O’Boyle, lobbyist with the company who served as a point of contact with the Biden administration. The content moderation requests were sent throughout 2021 and early 2022.
The entire campaign, newly available tax documents and other disclosures show, was entirely funded by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, a vaccine industry lobbying group. BIO, which is financed by companies such as Moderna and Pfizer, provided Stronger with $1,275,000 in funding for the effort, which included tools for the public to flag content on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook for moderation.
Many of the tweets flagged by Stronger contained absolute falsehoods, including claims that vaccines contained microchips and were designed to intentionally kill people. But others hinged on a gray area of vaccine policy through which there is reasonable debate, such as requests to label or take down content critical of vaccine passports and government mandates to require vaccination.
One tweet flagged by the BIO-backed moderation effort read, “if a vaccinated person and an unvaccinated person have roughly the same capacity to carry, shed and transmit the virus, particularly in its Delta form, what difference does implementing a vaccination passport actually make to the spread of the virus?”
Public health experts and civil libertarians strongly debated the constitutionality of such passports, an idea that was eventually discarded by U.S. policymakers.
Joe Smyser, the chief executive of Public Good Projects in charge of the Stronger campaign, said his organization’s work was a good-faith effort to battle disinformation. “BIO contributed money and said, ‘You guys are planning on running a pro-vaccine, anti-vaccine misinformation effort and we will give you $500,000 [per year] no questions asked,’” said Smyser.
Many pharmaceutical lobby groups made exaggerated claims about the danger of sharing vaccine technology. PhRMA, another drug industry lobby group, falsely claimed on Twitter that any effort to allow the creation of a generic Covid vaccine would result in placing all 4.4 million jobs supported by the entire American drug industry at risk.
I asked Smyser whether his group ever flagged any content distributed by the pharmaceutical lobby as “misinformation.”
Smyser agreed that policy debate was important, and if misinformation was spread by pharmaceutical companies, any global citizen “should be aware of it,” but that his organization never flagged or focused on any drug industry content.
“I understand why someone would be skeptical, because as a researcher, it matters where your money comes from,” Smyser said. But, he argued, “my job is, how do people figure out where to go get vaccinated? And how do I encourage them to get the vaccine? That was it.”
In a December 2020 email thread further discussing how to monitor BioNTech and respond to the vaccine equity campaign engaging in “spammy behavior” potentially in violation of the social media company’s policies, Holger Kersting, a Twitter spokesperson in Germany, offered several links to tweets in potential violation of the policy.
Two of the tweets were from an account owned by Terry Brough, a retired bricklayer in a small town outside of Liverpool. The messages called on the chief executives of Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca to share vaccine technology with “poor countries.”
Reached for comment, Brough reacted with surprise that his messages were being monitored for possible fake content.
“I’m actually 74 and still living,” said Brough with a chuckle. “I was a bricklayer all my life just like my dad. I’m no Che Guevara, but I’ve been an activist, a trade unionist, and a socialist. And all I did was sign a tweet. I wish I could’ve done more, really.”
Update: January 17, 2023
The piece has been updated with a comment from the German Federal Office of Information Security received after publication.