BioNTech and Twitter warned by PR body for trying to duck COVID-19 vaccine debate

The self-regulatory body of the German communications industry has accused BioNTech of trying to pull out of a public debate about vaccine patents. BioNTech received the warning after it asked Twitter to “hide” its account ahead of an online campaign that targeted developers of COVID-19 vaccines in 2020. 

Details of BioNTech’s exchanges with Twitter, which last month was rebranded as X, in the run-up to the People's Vaccine Day of Action first emerged in January, when The Intercept reported on emails between the companies. That report showed an email from a BioNTech communication employee, asking Twitter to hide the account to prevent comments, and a subsequent internal email among staff at the social media company.

In the internal email, the former head of public policy for Twitter in Germany asked colleagues to “have an eye on” hashtags related to People's Vaccine and the accounts run by BioNTech, Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca.  

According to the email, BioNTech and the German Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) contacted Twitter about the People's Vaccine campaign. The authorities warned of “serious consequences” such as a “flood of comments ‘that may violate TOS’ as well as the ‘takeover of user accounts’,” the email said. Specific concerns included the targeting of the personal accounts of executives at vaccine manufacturers. 

Now, Deutsche Rat für Public Relations (DRPR), the voluntary self-regulatory body of the German PR and communications industry, has published (PDF) its take on what happened. Responding to a complaint about BioNTech and Twitter, the DRPR investigated the actions of the companies and issued a warning about violations of the transparency requirements of the German communication code. 

Under the DRPR code, PR and communications professionals “do their work openly and transparently, as far as this is permitted by the legal provisions and the confidentiality obligations towards the respective employer or client.” The code is intended to help the public “classify and weigh up information.”

The DRPR is unclear whether BioNTech’s request had any impact. Neither Twitter nor the BSI responded to the self-regulatory body’s request for information and, as such, it has been unable to learn whether there was a genuine cybersecurity concern or if the social media company acted on BioNTech's request. Even so, the DRPR has seen enough to find the companies had violated its policy.

Mohga Kamal-Yanni, policy co-lead for the People’s Vaccine Alliance, commented on the DRPR’s action. “Pharmaceutical companies must realize that they cannot shut down criticism when they fail to supply lifesaving medical technologies like COVID-19 vaccines to lower income countries. The companies must publish their full interactions for public scrutiny,” Kamal-Yanni said in a statement.

In a statement to Fierce Pharma Marketing, BioNTech said that "cyber security-related aspects" led to its decision in 2020 to deactivate the company's own Twitter account for two days, noting that each user can deactivate their own account independently for up to 30 days. "The decision was made in an exceptional situation, also with regards to cyber security, nevertheless, we understand that this decision can be interpreted differently in retrospect from an external perspective," the pharma said. 

"What we do not understand is the accusation that BioNTech is avoiding a public debate on the subject of vaccine availability. On the contrary, BioNTech has been in continuous dialogue with a wide variety of stakeholders from the very beginning. We have been providing both short- and long-term solutions for low- and middle-income countries, including providing more than 1.6 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses which addressed the demand in 2021 and 2022.

"We are building sustainable production capacity in Africa with local partners and the support of various governments and organizations, and we are developing vaccine candidates against various infectious diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis.”