Lessons for Pharma from a Pre-Approval Social Media Misstep

May, 2024

One ill-advised retweet over two years ago regarding data for an unapproved product has resulted in significant learnings for Pfizer and the pharmaceutical industry about the careful boundaries of using social media. A case brought to the UK’s Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority (PMCPA) concerning promotional tweets made in November 2020 about Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate has highlighted both the promise and profound pitfalls for drug companies in this arena.

The core of the case centered around an initial tweet by a Pfizer employee in the US announcing positive results from clinical trials of their pre-approval COVID vaccine. However, significantly for the compliance implications, this post was then shared on Twitter by a senior Pfizer UK manager before the shot had received any marketing authorization.

While Pfizer acted swiftly to accept code breaches around unlicensed promotion, balanced information and maintaining high standards, the PMCPA investigation deemed this a breach of the most serious Clause 2 due to prematurely broadcasting unapproved product claims. For the regulator, simply having policies in place is not enough – pharmaceutical firms must vigilantly enforce conformity to avoid such conduct, even by senior executives, that risks diminishing overall industry credibility.


the case highlights how casually circulating pre-approval marketing claims benefits investors more than informing healthcare. It risks fueling unrealistic efficacy expectations that could later dampen public trust

The PMCPA probed further and discovered a total of six Pfizer UK employees, including another leader, had spread the pre-approval tweet, indicating gaps remained in effectively communicating expectations on social platforms. For critics of Big Pharma, this validated portrayals of inherent shortcomings and a lack of accountability even in emergencies without stricter monitoring. Supporters argue companies boosting engagement guidelines shows learning, not malice, to benefit communities.

However, the case highlights how casually circulating pre-approval marketing claims benefits investors more than informing healthcare. It risks fueling unrealistic efficacy expectations that could later dampen public trust if any safety issues arise. While engagement through social channels may aid transparency by demystifying industry, drug firms must avoid the appearance of using it for promotional ends before established oversight bodies can properly assess products. Companies must recognize sharing premature outcomes claims is generally less constructive than awaiting formal scientific review.

As the lines between personal and professional representation blur online, other lessons emerge for managing social media interactions ethically and constructively. Policies must unambiguously govern all brand-referencing discussions, however casual, with consequences discouraging accidental missteps. Continuous refresher training helps refresh complex responsibilities that conflict in public commentary. Stricter separation of corporate versus individual employee networks can also help address watchdogs’ valid integrity concerns.

More broadly for pharma social media managers, independent monitoring supplements necessary internal compliance to catch inevitable blind spots. Officially, interactions should frame complex issues informally without promotional suggestion. And proactively purging past indiscretions signals longterm commitment to stewardship over shortterm gains, building credibility through transparency and responsiveness to civil society oversight.

Especially when addressing urgent public health issues, sharing select outcomes internally first allows properly contextualizing results through scientific scrutiny before prematurely fueling nonexpert speculation. While accessibility benefits dialog, casually distributing selective promotional claims risks damaging confidence if mishandled, as the pandemic pressures supercharged existing challenges around participatory frontiers.

As integrative digital landscapes evolve, so too must approaches transparently balance openness with accountability. The PMCPA case showed a generally constructive resolution through Pfizer accepting learnings, which with incorporation can optimise informing communities without compromising ethics or confidence in progress. But only with humility and dedication to constant evolution addressing inevitable growing pains will drug developers maintain the consideration required to safely guide healthcare through new terrain.


  1. PMCPA CASE AUTH/3741/2/23

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About the Author

  • Dilruwan Herath

    Dilruwan Herath is a British infectious disease physician and pharmaceutical medical executive with over 25 years of experience. As a doctor, he specialized in infectious diseases and immunology, developing a resolute focus on public health impact. Throughout his career, Dr. Herath has held several senior medical leadership roles in large global pharmaceutical companies, leading transformative clinical changes and ensuring access to innovative medicines. Currently, he serves as an expert member for the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Medicine on it Infectious Disease Commitee and continues advising life sciences companies. When not practicing medicine, Dr. Herath enjoys painting landscapes, motorsports, computer programming, and spending time with his young family. He maintains an avid interest in science and technology. He is a founder of DarkDrug

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