Health Minister first met with Pfizer for COVID-19 vaccine after other countries had already made deals
The Health Minister's office didn't meet Pfizer executives to negotiate a vaccine purchase until a fortnight after the USA and UK had already signed supply deals for COVID-19 vaccines, despite the pharmaceutical giant repeatedly advising the federal government to show urgency.
Labor has claimed newly surfaced documents suggest Pfizer initiated contact with the government on June 26 last year to request a meeting, warning four days later that the "vaccine development landscape is moving swiftly", including with other nations.
The company offered to make senior members of its "global leadership team available" for the discussion if the Health Minister "and/or departmental leadership" could be involved.
"I am requesting this meeting occur at the earliest opportunity," a Pfizer executive told the Health Department in a June 30 email, obtained by Labor under Freedom of Information laws.
"We have the potential to supply millions of vaccine doses by the end of 2020," the company wrote.
Three days later, a health department official responded to Pfizer's email, saying it had been passed onto Health Minister Greg Hunt, but that she would meet with the company.
US and UK struck deals before Minister's first meeting
Pfizer offered a highly detailed briefing from its European colleagues overseeing development of the mRNA vaccine but only if the Health Department signed a confidentiality agreement beforehand.
On July 8, the department responded, saying it was "not usual practice" to sign confidentiality agreements, and proposed to have an introductory or explanatory discussion instead.
Notes of that meeting by the Health Department record Pfizer telling officials that it wanted discussions to "move as quickly as possible" and that its vaccine could be "deploy(ed) at unprecedented speed" and "possibly ... by the end of the year".
Pfizer sent another email to the Health Department on July 23 alerting officials "to recent news of Pfizer's agreements with the UK and the US on vaccine supply" that had been signed on July 20 and July 22 respectively.
Labor claims the documents show it was not until a fortnight later, on August 4, that the minister's office first met the Pfizer representatives.
Health Minister Greg Hunt has denied this, saying his office was in regular discussions, including a meeting at the end of June, and began formal discussions as soon as Pfizer was able.
Meanwhile, the Minister had been negotiating with other vaccine suppliers, announcing on August 19 that Australia had signed a supply deal with AstraZeneca, whose clinical trials at that point were looking promising.
'Morrison simply didn't take Pfizer seriously': Labor
In November, four months after Pfizer's first offer to meet, the government announced it had signed a deal with the company for 10 million doses to be delivered "from early to mid-2021", indicating the vaccine would be used to supplement AstraZeneca supplies.
However, Pfizer eventually became the backbone of Australia's rollout, when the safety advice for AstraZeneca was changed, effectively limiting its use for those over 50 and then 60.
Shadow Health Minister Mark Butler said the documents proved Prime Minister Scott Morrison had taken "a deliberate wait and see approach to vaccine deals".
"These papers confirm that Scott Morrison simply didn't take Pfizer seriously enough when he should, while every other developed country on the face of the planet was busy securing early supplies of Pfizer vaccines," he said.
The Health Minister has refuted Labor's claim, saying the department had actively engaged with Pfizer from the outset of the pandemic.
"As Pfizer has made clear, no earlier doses were available to Australia," a spokeswoman for Mr Hunt said in a statement.
"The reference in the letter to the 'potential to supply millions of vaccine doses' ... referred to Pfizer's global production capacity, not what was on offer to Australia."
The spokeswoman said the government's purchase of Pfizer doses was made "as soon as possible".
Mr Morrison has been heavily criticised for the pace and progress of the vaccine rollout, and for initially claiming Australia would be at the front of the queue when it came to supply.
It was not until August this year that Mr Morrison held his first meeting with the global head of Pfizer, Albert Bourla, who he has since credited with helping to secure a series of vaccine swap deals with other countries.
So far, just under 40 per cent of Australians aged over 16 have been fully vaccinated compared with more than 70 per cent of adults in the UK.