Navigating Online Reputation Risks: Pfizer's “Pfizergate” Scandal

Pfizer and other pharmaceutical companies need to understand how they are being discussed online — a major scandal related to one company in this sector may have a spillover effect on other companies. 

According to PeakMetrics narrative intelligence, risks associated with the narrative “Pfizergate” — a 2021 scandal involving European Commission President Ursula von Leyen and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla over contracts with Pfizer for COVID-19 vaccines—are heightened by Russian-state-linked media amplification, particularly targeted to German-speaking audiences.

Detect: While not new, PeakMetrics detected the resurgence of the three-year old “Pfizergate” narrative in late March/early April 2024 in the context of European Commission President Ursula von Leyen’s re-election campaign and the transfer of the case to the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO). Mentions of Pfizergate (or mentions of von Leyen and Pfizer) peaked recently on 31 March  — related to the announcement on the transfer of the investigation. 

Pfizergate mentions chart

Decipher: Companies like Pfizer need to understand where this messaging is being produced or distributed to counter damaging narratives. Among online mentions of Pfizergate, PeakMetrics found that Italian, German, and Romanian were the top languages—far ahead of English and French. 

Pfizergate mentions by language chart

Italian-language coverage of the scandal appears tied to the domestic political fallout, related to Pfizergate, for Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Melonie. 

Romanian-language coverage of Pfizergate appears related to the European Public Prosecutor — who herself is Romanian — and possibly related to Pfizer’s lawsuit against Romania over missed vaccine payments. PeakMetrics uncovered revived mentions related to the Romania-Pfizer vaccine payments narrative around 31 March — when the Pfizergate narrative resurfaced. 

Defend: Within these mentions, PeakMetrics found indicators that Russian state-backed news outlets were amplifying the Pfizergate scandal. Pfizer and other pharmaceutical companies need to be aware of the disinformation element of this scandal in order to best defend against reputational risks related to it. 

Most of the Russian-backed media discussing Pfizergate is published in German — namely Anti-Spiegel and RT Deutsch. This is another story to watch for the narrative jumping across the pond — to a ripe American information environment quick  to latch onto a scandal involving keywords Big Pharma, vaccines, andcorruption. English-language mentions don’t account for a very large percentage of mentions, but if that starts going, it may indicate that the Pfizergate scandal is gaining traction with U.S. audiences.

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