Pharma PR appears as unvetted COVID-19 vaccine news in STAT newsletter

Gary Schwitzer is the founder of and has been its publisher for 14 years. He has been a health care journalist for 47 years. He tweets as @garyschwitzer or as @HealthNewsRevu.

I’ve written about STAT’s Morning Rounds newsletter in the past, and criticized how STAT accepts pharma sponsorship of the newsletter.

In the last two weeks, for example, the newsletter has featured sponsored content from:

  • drug company AstraZeneca;
  • the Biotechnology Innovation Organization – whose biggest sponsors include drug companies Lilly, Merck, Amgen, Johnson & Johnson;
  • biotech company Genentech;
  • Blue Cross Blue Shield Association;
  • drug company Bristol Myers Squibb.

I believe that an ethical news organization that covers pharma and biotech full-time should not accept sponsorship from pharma and biotech.

In Monday’s STAT Morning Rounds newsletter this week, there was this news item:

AstraZeneca announced over the weekend that it had struck a deal to provide up to 400 million doses of its experimental Covid-19 vaccine to countries in the European Union. The company plans to begin delivering the vaccine to European countries by the end of this year under an agreement with the Inclusive Vaccine Alliance, which was formed by France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands. Other EU countries will also have a chance to partake in the deal.

I clicked on the link.  It didn’t take me to a news story or to any independently-vetted piece of journalism.  Instead, the link went directly to an AstraZeneca PR news release.

That’s a nice piece of free news attention – if you can get it.

I looked for data in the AstraZeneca PR to which STAT had linked me.  There was none.  But there was this – presumably to satisfy the lawyers:

AstraZeneca recognises that the vaccine may not work but is committed to progressing the clinical programme with speed and scaling up manufacturing at risk.

That doesn’t satisfy me – and it shouldn’t satisfy STAT’s readers.

The news item – and the link – weren’t sponsored content and weren’t associated with an advertisement.  We expect a leading news organization that specializes in health care news to offer news, not PR, with its links.

I recall how a leading health care journalist wrote to me about STAT’s coverage of the Gilead drug remdesivir on April 29.  The journalist wrote:

I know that STAT’s business model is implicitly pro-pharma but even given that, this story is a press release.

In this latest case there could be no doubt that the story was nothing about a press release.

So it’s double bonanza time for some drug companies and biotech firms on STAT.  Pay for your sponsored content to be placed right in the middle of the morning news.  And, if you’re lucky, get your PR news releases posted for free.  Straight from the company’s keyboard to your eyes. I think we can and should do better in covering coronavirus vaccine news.

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