Early last month, CDC Director Rochelle P. Walensky endorsed recommendations by the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) for updated COVID-19 boosters from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
“This recommendation followed a comprehensive scientific evaluation and robust scientific discussion,” Dr. Walensky said in a statement. “If you are eligible, there is no bad time to get your COVID-19 booster and I strongly encourage you to receive it.”
The American Medical Association welcomed the ACIP recommendation, while Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, splashed cold water on the decision. “The CDC risks eroding the public’s trust by overselling the new shot,” he warned in the Wall Street Journal.
The pharma industry—at least part of it—was likely less conflicted about the CDC’s decision, as the boardrooms of both Pfizer and Moderna have witnessed unprecedented sales and eye watering profits since introducing their COVID-19 vaccines. The companies’ success before the CDC also signals a win for the PR firm Weber Shandwick, which has long represented Pfizer and other pharmaceutical companies and began providing public relations support to Moderna sometime in 2020.
In an odd case of synchronicity—and let’s be honest, a whiff of undue influence—Weber Shandwick employees are also embedded at the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD), the CDC group that implements vaccine programs and oversees the work of ACIP. “So excited to be starting a new role today,” wrote a Weber Shandwick employee 11 months ago on her LinkedIn account. “I’m joining Weber Shandwick as an Account Director supporting a contract I know well, at CDC’s NCIRD!”
“Welcome back to the team!” responded another Weber Shandwick employee.
Beginning last week, I sent several emails to the CDC asking them to explain the nature of Weber Shandwick’s work at the agency and how involved Weber Shandwick employees are in the formulating guidance and public information on COVID-19 policy and vaccinations. Yesterday, I followed up with direct requests for comment emailed to the CDC Director and her Executive Secretary.
The CDC has refused to respond to questions explaining this apparent conflict.
I also sent several questions yesterday to leaders at Weber Shandwick’s crisis communications group. I heard back from Weber Shandwick’s head of global communications last night and will update readers if they respond.
“This is irresponsible of CDC to issue a PR contract to Weber Shandwick, knowing that the firm also works for Moderna and Pfizer,” emailed Public Citizen’s Craig Holman. “It raises legitimate questions of whose interests Weber Shandwick will put first – their private sector clients or the public’s interest at NCIRD.”
“This new reporting that CDC had a contract with the same PR firm representing the manufacturers of the COVID-19 vaccine raises serious concerns,” wrote a spokesperson for Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), adding that the Senator has repeatedly questioned federal officials about potential conflicts of interest related to CDC’s COVID-19 vaccine recommendations. Following the midterm elections in November, Senator Paul will be next in line as the top Republican on the Senate HELP Committee which oversees the CDC.
“The American people deserve transparency and these conflicts of interest will be thoroughly investigated by our committee next year,” the Senator’s spokesperson added.
Founded almost 20 years ago, Weber Shandwick (IPG Dxtra) is the second largest PR firm in the world, according to Provoke Media, which will announce awards the firm has won at a contest held later this year.
Weber Shandwick returned to growth in 2021, albeit in the modest single digits, and that momentum is continuing into 2022. There were expanded assignments from the likes of AB InBev, Abbott, Amazon, the CDC, GM, GSK, Kellogg’s, McDonald’s, Nestle, Pfizer and Sanofi….
Earlier this year, Weber Shandwick bragged on LinkedIn of its success in promoting GSK’s Excedrin. However, pharmaceutical companies have also caused the firm some headaches.
In 2006, multiple British outlets reported on a pan-European cancer campaign called Cancer United, which was funded by Roche—the maker of three cancer drugs—while promoted to reporters by Weber Shandwick. As funding of the organization became clear, politicians and patient groups distanced themselves from the organization, which was later ridiculed as a pharmaceutical front group.
And in a 2016 deposition, an executive at Forest Pharmaceuticals was questioned about Weber Shandwick’s role in drafting a 2001 study promoting one of the companies drugs that was then published under the name of a professor at the University of Texas. In his book on the pharmaceutical industry’s hidden hand in science titled “Ghost-Managed Medicine” Queen’s University Professor Sergio Sismondo described the incident as another example of PR firms ghostwriting medical studies to shape pharmaceutical prescribing.
According to Medical Marketing and Media, Weber Shandwick first won a potential $50 million contract to support the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases in September 2020, during COVID pandemic’s first year. According to NCIRD documents, Weber employees would communicate the risks and recommended actions for outbreaks and convey vaccine recommendations to healthcare providers.
Weber’s duties include providing 10 on-site health communications staffers, seven health comms specialists, two health research specialists and one social media specialist. The agency’s earned media responsibilities include generating story ideas, distributing articles and conducting outreach to news, media and entertainment organizations. It also includes conducting satellite radio and TV tours, providing spokesperson training and reaching out to celebrities or entertainment media.
On his LinkedIn Account, a former Weber Shandwick employee explained that his duties at the CDC “focuses on boosting vaccination rates for flu, HPV, whooping cough, and COVID-19.”
A few weeks after Weber Shandwick won the CDC contract, a senior vice president at the firm posted a company blog laying out the realities and dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the blog’s bottom, she disclosed, that an asterisk indicated Weber Shandwick clients working on COVID-19 vaccines: GSK, Sanofi, and Pfizer.
The pharmaceutical industry has also quickly mobilized partnerships for research and development, manufacturing and distribution. A recent op-ed in STAT News summarized some of the concrete steps companies have taken, “GSK* and Sanofi*, have combined their innovative technologies to develop an adjuvanted Covid-19 vaccine. Pfizer* has offered its manufacturing capacity to support the production of medicines and vaccines developed by other companies.
Ten days later on Nov. 18, 2020, Pfizer announced that their COVID-19 vaccine met all of the primary efficacy endpoints in their clinical trial. “The study results mark an important step in this historic eight-month journey to bring forward a vaccine capable of helping to end this devastating pandemic,” stated Dr. Albert Bourla, Pfizer chairman and CEO.
That next month, The FDA granted Pfizer Emergency Use Authorization for its COVID-19 vaccine, while PR Week broke a special report on Moderna’s communications plan for its own COVID-19 vaccine. Having submitted their vaccine to the federal government for emergency authorization, Moderna’s chief corporate affairs officer Ray Jordan and corporate comms director Colleen Hussey told PR Week that their communications plan focused on transparency.
To help with publicity, the company relied on Weber Shandwick in the United States and FTI Consulting in other countries. Release of its COVID-19 vaccine data, Moderna told PR Week, generated 3,000 U.S. articles and 7,000 articles internationally.
“Based on the extent of interest in the vaccine and the intense interest on the part of the press to follow the progress, we have leaned into the notion of transparency as we have talked about what we are doing with the vaccine,” explained [Ray] Jordan. “We have leaned into transparency even when it might feel challenging or painful to the organization based on its habits and experience.”
By being transparent, Moderna hopes consumers will feel more educated and confident about the vaccine, added Hussey.
This June, Moderna announced a new communications strategy, which would be led by Laura Schoen, who is sometimes titled president of global healthcare at Weber Shandwick, and other times chief healthcare officer at IPG DXTRA, Weber Shandwick’s parent company.
An integrated and cross-discipline team drawing on talent and expertise from Weber Shandwick, Golin and Jack Health, will join Moderna’s global agency roster to drive the brand’s narrative globally. The team, led by DXTRA Health’s Chief Healthcare Officer, Laura Schoen, will support Moderna in activating and engaging key internal and external audiences, including employees, consumers, healthcare providers, vaccine recipients and policymakers.
A Weber Shandwick employee later tweeted support for Moderna’s proposed panel at the upcoming South by Southwest Conference this March. “Vote for my #client Moderna’s SXSW 2023 entry: ‘COVID, Monkeypox, Disease X, What’s Next?’”
The proposed panel would discuss public-private partnerships in global health and features Moderna executive Hamilton Bennett alongside White House Senior Advisor, Matthew Hepburn, who works in the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) on pandemic response and preparing for future COVID variants.
“It is concerning that CDC talking points are provided by the same public relations company that works for the vaccine manufacturers,” said Dr. Martin Kulldorf, Professor of Medicine at Harvard (on leave). For two decades, Kulldorf worked with the CDC to help develop its vaccine safety evaluation system. However, the CDC fired him from this job after he disagreed with the agency’s decision to pause the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, a competitor with Pfizer and Moderna.
“To ensure public trust, CDC must provide accurate, science-based evidence on vaccines,” Kulldorf said. “They have failed to do so.”