COVID-19: Lack of Transparency Risks Global Response

The Transparency International report reveals a pattern of poor transparency and a disturbing trend of governments censoring key details of their orders from drug companies.

By Transparency International Global Health

A lack of transparency in COVID-19 vaccine trials and secrecy over deals between governments and drug companies risks the success of the global pandemic response, new research from Transparency International Global Health and the University of Toronto warned on Tuesday.

For Whose Benefit? is an in-depth study of the development and sale of the world’s top 20 COVID-19 vaccines, including those developed by AstraZeneca, Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech.

Through detailed analysis of clinical trial data and nearly 200 contracts for vaccine sales up to March 2021, the report reveals a pattern of poor transparency and a disturbing trend of governments censoring key details of their orders from drug companies.

Read the report

Clinical trial transparency is the only way to monitor the safety and efficacy of vaccines and is a key safeguard against selective reporting of results or manipulation of data. Despite this, analysis of the registered clinical trials for the top vaccines reveals that results from just 45 per cent of these trials had been announced. Of this figure, 41 percent had provided only top-level results via a press release or press conference, with the full data not made available for media scrutiny or academic review.

Clinical trial protocols had been published for just 12 percent of trials. There were no publicly accessible protocols for 88 percent of the registered trials in our analysis and, therefore, no way of knowing the conditions under which they were carried out.

Jonathan Cushing, head of Transparency International’s Global Health Program, said:

“These results make for worrying reading and carry important implications not just for the COVID-19 response, but also for future health emergencies. The lack of transparency of many clinical trials combined with the huge financial incentives for producing effective treatments leaves the door wide open for selective reporting of results or outright data manipulation. The lack of publicly accessible data creates space for misleading and potentially dangerous half-truths, disinformation, and conspiracy theories, which in turn contribute to vaccine hesitancy.”

Shrouded Government Contracts

The research also highlights poor transparency in contracts between drug companies and governments. Of the handful of contracts that had been published, almost all include significant redactions of key information such as total price paid, price per dose and delivery schedules.

Analysis of 183 contracts for 12 different COVID-19 vaccines reveals that only 7 percent of vaccine contracts between developers and governments were published through official channels. Just one contract (0.5 percent) was published without redactions. Most feature entire pages of redactions which obscure information of critical public interest.

There are large disparities in the price paid. For the Oxford/Astra-Zeneca-developed vaccine, upper-middle income economies like South Africa are paying an average of 25 per cent more per dose than high-income economies like the European Union.

Equally as disturbing is the lack of transparency over the contracts between governments and vaccine developers,” Cushing said. “Hiding contracts from public view or publishing documents filled with redacted text means we don’t know what governments have signed up to. Given the huge amounts of public money invested in research and development around the world, citizens have right to know everything about the vaccines their taxes helped to fund.”

With recent polling showing that one third of the world’s population – 1.3 billion people – are unwilling to take a coronavirus vaccine, transparency is vital to build confidence.

Transparency International Global Health calls on:

  • National governments to adopt and enforce legislation requiring the pre-registration of all clinical trials and the publication of summary results within 12 months of their completion. All governments that have bought vaccines should also follow the lead of the United States and publish their contracts.

  • Vaccine developers to publish their clinical trial protocols on a publicly accessible registry (if they have not done so already). Developers should also only use media to announce clinical trial results in tandem with data analysis published in a peer-reviewed medical journal, trial registry or as a pre-print article.

The research was conducted by Transparency International’s Global Health Program and The World Health Organization Collaborating Centre (WHO CC) for Governance, Accountability, and Transparency in the Pharmaceutical Sector hosted at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Toronto.

The report analyzed 20 leading COVID-19 vaccines that were in, or had completed, phase 3 clinical trials as of Jan. 11, 2021. It also examined contract data for the following 12 vaccines:

  1. Moderna, mRNA-1273

  2. Pfizer/BioNTech, Comirnaty (BNT162b2)

  3. Medicago (w/GSK adjuvant), CoVLP

  4. Bharat Biotech, Covaxin (BBV152)

  5. CureVac, CVnCoV

  6. Sinopharm (Beijing), BBIBP-CorV

  7. AstraZeneca, AZD1222 / Covishield (ChAdOx1 nCoV-19)

  8. CanSino Biologics, Convidicea (Ad5-nCoV)

  9. Johnson & Johnson, Ad26.COV2.S

  10. Novavax, NVX-CoV2373

  11. Sinovac Biotech, CoronaVac

  12. Gamaleya Research Institute, Sputnik V.

Transparency International is the global civil society organization leading the fight against corruption.

4 comments for “COVID-19: Lack of Transparency Risks Global Response

  1. Daniel Fry
    May 25, 2021 at 17:24

    Could the lack of transparency be because the vaccines are experimental, and have a lot of serious side effects?

  2. Robert B
    May 25, 2021 at 16:37

    I will decline the vaccines until all the trials are complete, the data analyzed, and peer reviewed conclusions are presented. Moderna trial ends Oct 27, 2022 and Pfizer on Jan 31, 2023.

      May 25, 2021 at 17:59

      This is incorrect. Reuters: “[This] claim likely stems from misinformation shared elsewhere which?equates “estimated study completion dates” for vaccines to the end dates of clinical trials. For Pfizer, this?estimated?date is Jan. 31, 2023?(here),?while Moderna is Oct. 27, 2022?(here). However, these?dates?do not mean clinical trials are ongoing, rather they reference?continued safety monitoring?after the vaccine has been approved and rolled out, which is standard practice within the industry.”?

  3. Ian Perkins
    May 25, 2021 at 15:20

    “transparency is vital to build confidence”
    A recent article in Nature makes the same point:
    Public-health specialists told Nature that the key to increasing public trust continues to be transparency. In a study of how communication about vaccine efficacy affected people’s decisions to get a COVID-19 shot1, Freeman and her colleagues found that being transparent about the uncertainties made no difference to whether or not a person got a vaccine. But, says Freeman, “we did find that people felt that they were more informed and felt more confident in their decision making when they were given more informative communication”.

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