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Pfizer CEO says people who spread vaccine disinformation are ‘criminals’

Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, speaks during an interview in New York on Monday. (Christopher Goodney/Bloomberg)

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said Tuesday that people who spread disinformation about coronavirus vaccines are “criminals.”

Bourla, in an interview with the Atlantic Council think tank, said a “very small” group has been responsible for spreading vaccine disinformation to the millions who remain hesitant about getting vaccinated.

“Those people are criminals,” he said to Atlantic Council CEO Frederick Kempe about 40 minutes into a nearly hour-long interview. “They’re not bad people. They’re criminals because they have literally cost millions of lives.”

A conversation with Pfizer Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Albert Bourla

TUNE IN for an #ACFrontPage event with Albert Bourla, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Pfizer, as he discusses the state of the pandemic and the remaining challenges ahead, vaccine development, as well as his personal story.

Posted by Atlantic Council on Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Bourla’s remarks were reported by CNBC earlier Tuesday.

The CEO’s comments came the same day as Pfizer and German partner BioNTech asked the Food and Drug Administration to authorize the companies’ coronavirus vaccine booster shot for anyone 18 and older, a move that could increase booster rates at a critical moment in the pandemic. The FDA could clear the request by the end of the month, according to health officials who spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue. The officials are concerned about studies showing waning vaccine protection, as well as increased infections in parts of the United States.

Pfizer asks FDA for broader authorization of vaccine booster

A spokesperson with Pfizer did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Coronavirus cases and deaths have largely plateaued or declined nationwide since the summer surge from the delta variant, but public health officials are urging millions of unvaccinated Americans to get their shots months after vaccines were widely available to the public.

More than 58 percent of the country has had both shots of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, a combination of the two, or the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine — accounting for more than 194 million Americans, according to data tracked by The Post.

The spread of misinformation through a range of mediums — TV, radio, social media — is fueling skepticism about lifesaving vaccines in the United States and around the world. In July, President Biden said social media companies were partially responsible for spreading misinformation about the coronavirus vaccines, and he called on them to do more to stop contributing to social ills. In response, YouTube announced in September that it was banning any videos that claim that commonly used vaccines approved by health authorities are ineffective or dangerous.

Five tactics used to spread vaccine misinformation in the wellness community, and why they work

More than three-quarters of adults in the United States either believe or are not sure about at least one false statement about the coronavirus, covid-19 or the coronavirus vaccines, according to a survey published Monday by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The misconceptions were shown to those who participated in the survey. Unvaccinated adults and Republicans are among those most likely to believe falsehoods about coronavirus vaccination, according to the results.

Vaccine skepticism has found a home on podcasts and right-leaning news shows with huge audiences in 2021. One of the more recent public examples of vaccine skepticism came when Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers tested positive for the coronavirus after he had told reporters that he was “immunized.” Rodgers later falsely said that the vaccines approved by federal regulators were untested and that he preferred “homeopathic treatment” recommended by podcaster Joe Rogan, who like Rodgers refused to get vaccinated and became infected.

Aaron Rodgers said he did the research on covid vaccines. Here’s how he was wrong, according to experts

In Bourla’s talk with the Atlantic Council, he was asked how he dealt with the fake news and conspiracy theories that have popped up over the past year, as well as how damaging it was for the world.

“I’m afraid it was quite … damaging,” said Bourla, adding that Pfizer was targeted by “a lot of … dark organizations” whose identities were unknown.

Bourla said he has empathy for both those who are vaccinated and those who are skeptical of getting the shots.

“Both of them are afraid,” he said. “Those who are getting the vaccine are afraid of the disease. … Those who don’t get the vaccine are afraid of the vaccine.”

He noted that those who remain unvaccinated “are decent people that have a fear.” Then he called those people circulating disinformation “criminals.”

“There is a very small part of professionals who circulate, on purpose, misinformation, so they mislead those who have concerns,” he said.

Bourla repeated that the fastest way for many people to go “back to normal” is for the unvaccinated to get vaccinated.

“The only thing that stands between the new way of life and the current way of life is, frankly, hesitancy to vaccinations,” he said.

Laurie McGinley, Lena H. Sun and Tyler Pager contributed to this report.

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