National Cancer Institute Director Monica Bertagnolli (3rdL) speaks to First Lady Jill Biden (C), medical students and doctors to mark breast cancer awareness month on October 7, 2022 in San Francisco, California ( GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / POOL / AFP)

Posts misconstrue Pfizer grants to nonprofit headed by Biden nominee

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Politicians, conservative groups and anti-vaccine advocates claim US President Joe Biden's nominee for director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) received millions of dollars in grants from Pfizer. This is false; some of the posts share an altered version of a White House press release -- and the figures cited online refer to money given to a nonprofit that Monica Bertagnolli previously led, which distributed the funding to different researchers.

"Yesterday, President Biden announced Dr. Monica Bertagnolli as his intended nominee for Director of the NIH," said Robert Kennedy Jr, an anti-vaccine advocate and Democratic presidential candidate, in a May 16, 2023 tweet.

"Guess what? From 2015-2021, Bertagnolli received more than 116 grants from Pfizer, totaling $290.8 million. This amount made up 89 percent of all her research grants."

Other posts on Facebook and Instagram share a purported screenshot of a White House press release with the same figures.

"So basically Joe Biden's nominating Pfizer to run the National Institutes of Health," says a May 16 Facebook post from Robby Starbuck, a former Republican congressional candidate from the US state of Tennessee. "This is open, evil Big Pharma corruption."

Screenshot from Twitter taken May 22, 2023
Screenshot from Facebook taken May 22, 2023



The posts accumulated tens of thousands of interactions across platforms, according to CrowdTangle, a social media insights tool. Websites and anti-vaccine advocates such as the Epoch Times and Robert Malone, whom AFP has previously fact-checked for spreading misinformation, amplified the claims.

The White House said in a May 15 press release (archived here) that Biden would nominate Bertagnolli, director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), as chief of the NIH. But the announcement does not include the language shared online -- and the Pfizer grants cited in the posts helped fund a large clinical trial coordinated by a nonprofit that Bertagnolli previously led.

"We can confirm that all industry funds received by the Alliance for Clinical Trials in Oncology are received in support of the conduct of cancer clinical trials, including large, multi-national trials with thousands of patients," said Suzanne George, the organization's interim group chair and president of the Alliance Foundation. "Dr Bertagnolli did not directly or personally receive any of these funds."

The text in the supposed White House press release screenshot stems from an August 2022 Daily Signal article.

The conservative news website, published by the Heritage Foundation, cited a search (archived here) in a database from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to claim Bertagnolli had received millions in Pfizer grants. Open Payments reports those amounts as "associated research funding," which the system says constitutes "payments to a research institution or entity where a covered recipient is named as a principal investigator on the research project."

Bertagnolli served as group chair of the Alliance for Clinical Trials in Oncology between 2011 and 2022. The group "comprises nearly 10,000 cancer specialists at hospitals, medical centers and community clinics across the United States and Canada" and "develops and conducts clinical trials with promising new cancer therapies," according to its website.

Bertagnolli told the Daily Signal in 2022 that the money from Pfizer and others "was not in the form of grants to me directly," but rather "contracts entered into by the Alliance for Clinical Trials in Oncology."

"All industry contracts were used by the Alliance's 3,000+ member clinical trials group to conduct cancer clinical trials," she said. "Importantly, virtually all of the funding from Pfizer was for a single large international breast cancer clinical trial."

She added that the funding "was distributed across many different health care institutions -- both academic and community -- to conduct the trial."

George told AFP in a May 18 email that the research (archived here) analyzed whether a drug called palbociclib could help treat certain types of breast cancer in concert with hormone therapy. The findings were published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Clinical Oncology in December 2021.

"Alliance overall does not have more involvement with one industry partner over another -- it's just that this one Pfizer trial was very large and therefore very expensive," Bertagnolli told the Daily Signal in 2022, noting that the trial "enrolled over 6,000 patients over quite a number of countries."

Bertagnolli forwarded AFP's request for comment to the White House, which said in a May 18 email that "funding for large clinical trials like these come from a number of sources, including companies participating in the trials."

Pfizer said in a May 18 emailed statement that the company's grants "support independent initiatives designed to improve patient outcomes."

"Grantees are not individuals but rather institutions chosen for their credentials and experience," the statement says. "Medical breakthroughs would not be possible without funding for valuable research."

AFP has fact-checked other false and misleading claims about Pfizer here.