Days ahead of releasing its Q4 2022 earnings, Pfizer finds itself at the center of an unusual controversy started by a nearly 10-minute online video.
Project Veritas, a right-wing activist group, released an undercover video on Tuesday featuring an alleged Pfizer executive saying that the drugmaker is exploring ways to mutate the virus that causes COVID-19.
Jordon Trishton Walker, identified as director of research and development for strategic operations and mRNA scientific planning at Pfizer, said in the video that the drugmaker is looking at mutating the virus to preempt the development of future vaccines, adding that the company’s ambitions are similar to gain-of-function research.
In the video, Walker also discussed the similarities between what Pfizer is alleged to be doing with the COVID-19 virus and what may have occurred at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, leading to a conversation about the so-called “lab leak theory” of the pandemic’s origin in China in late 2019.
Additionally, Walker claimed that COVID-19 and its variants have been a “cash cow” for Pfizer and alluded to a cozy relationship between the company and federal health regulators.
MM+M and other media outlets have been unable to verify that Walker works for Pfizer — or even exists. He lacks a digital presence on every major technology platform.
The video went viral this week, receiving more than 750,000 views on YouTube and fueling a firestorm in conservative media circles. Fox News host Tucker Carlson dedicated time on his show Thursday night to discuss the video and authored an op-ed on Fox News’ website elaborating on the allegations in greater detail.
Additionally, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) issued a public letter to Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla on Thursday, questioning whether the company is currently mutating the virus or is planning to do so, while voicing his concerns with the video’s claims.
“As a company that claims to ‘innovate every day to make the world a healthier place,’ these claims from your leadership charged with research and development are alarming,” Rubio wrote.
Pfizer issued a statement on Friday night reading, in part, that the company “has not conducted gain of function or directed evolution research.”
“Working with collaborators, we have conducted research where the original SARS-CoV-2 virus has been used to express the spike protein from new variants of concern,” the company wrote. “This work is undertaken once a new variant of concern has been identified by public health authorities. This research provides a way for us to rapidly assess the ability of an existing vaccine to induce antibodies that neutralize a newly identified variant of concern. We then make this data available through peer reviewed scientific journals and use it as one of the steps to determine whether a vaccine update is required.”
Project Veritas claims it is conducting investigative journalism. Its videos have received tens of millions of views on social media.
Thus the controversy begs a simple question: What does all of this mean for Pfizer?
How is a pharma brand supposed to act when a piece of questionable material surfaces and a significant portion of the population is predisposed to believe, without prejudice, that a pharma company would mutate a lethal virus for profit?
Bashe said that there has been considerable conversation around how the pandemic began and how quickly the subsequent vaccines were developed through Operation Warp Speed. He noted that while the rapid development and distribution of multiple COVID-19 vaccines was a significant achievement in medical innovation, there were bound to be questions from skeptics in the general public.
Bashe added that videos of this kind, featuring the voices of individuals with “either knowledge or a desire for 15 minutes of fame,” only further contribute to the pandemic of confusion.
“Sadly, this video is endemic to a society that needs immediate medical solutions to real public health threats. It opens the door to these sorts of news grabbers,” he said. “The media also relies on speed and speculation to attract audiences. This video — the yet unproven comments — are part of the public health risk we now all face. It’s the perfect storm of the desire for immediacy.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated.