Pfizer says former employee stole trade secrets on megablockbuster COVID-19 vaccine

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Pfizer says it "has yet to understand the full scope" of the alleged theft thanks to the "sheer number" of documents involved. (Tracy Staton)

Pfizer and other drugmakers go to great lengths to protect their proprietary information. When it comes to the world's best-selling pharmaceutical product, the company's BioNTech-partnered COVID-19 vaccine, Pfizer's defense of trade secrets carries even more weight.

That's why the company is working to get a handle on information allegedly stolen by a "soon-to-be former employee." In a new lawsuit filed in California, published by Bloomberg, Pfizer says an employee, Chun Xaio Li, uploaded more than 12,000 files, including "confidential Pfizer documents," to a personal Google Drive account and to personal devices.

The company says it "has yet to understand the full scope" of the alleged theft thanks to the "sheer number" of documents involved. The company's lawsuit focuses on the COVID-19 vaccine, Comirnaty, and two cancer monoclonal antibodies.

Pfizer confronted Li after learning of the "troubling conduct," and she initially "gave the appearance of cooperation," the lawsuit says. Now, though, Pfizer believes Li "misled" the company "about what she took, how she took it, when and why she did it and where those files (and possibly others) can be found today." The company alleges she even gave a "decoy laptop" to divert the investigation.

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Pfizer's COVID-19 shot has been a booming success, driving tens of billions of dollars in revenue this year. The company says in its suit that "success breeds imitation" and that Pfizer's rivals have been "relentlessly" trying to recruit its employees.

"The vast majority of Pfizer employees choose to remain at Pfizer, pleased to remain on a winning team that recognizes individuals’ efforts with generous compensation packages and advancement opportunities within Pfizer," the company said in its suit. "Not so for Ms. Li, who decided to leave Pfizer for a competitor believed to be Xencor, Inc."

A representative for Xencor, a California-based clinical-stage company working on drugs targeting cancer and autoimmune diseases, said the company can't comment because it is not a party in the lawsuit.

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In its suit, Pfizer alleges misappropriation of trade secrets, breach of contract and more. The company is seeking a temporary restraining order and injunctive relief to "prevent further irreparable harm" while it works through arbitration proceedings with Li.

Biopharma watchers are likely no strangers to cases involving stolen trade secrets. In one recent high-profile case, two ex-Genentech staffers admitted to stealing information from the company to aid a competitor.