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Claims misconstrue Pfizer grants received by NIH nominee’s nonprofit

Not Real News

On Friday, The Associated Press reported on stories circulating online incorrectly claiming a White House press release says that Dr. Monica Bertagnolli, President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the National Institutes of Health, received tens of millions of dollars in research money from Pfizer. 

CLAIM: A White House news release says that Dr. Monica Bertagnolli, President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the National Institutes of Health, received tens of millions of dollars in research money from Pfizer.

THE FACTS: The image circulating online has been manipulated; the official announcement didn’t include the funding statistics. Additionally, while Pfizer awarded grants to a nonprofit that Bertagnolli headed up, the money did not go directly to her. The Biden administration, Bertagnolli and the nonprofit have confirmed the funding was largely used to support a major breast cancer clinical trial.

But social media users are sharing the misleading screenshot, which includes the same headline and letterhead as Monday’s news release from the White House, but then goes on to say: “From 2015 through 2021, Bertagnolli received more than 116 grants from Pfizer, totaling $290.8 million. This amount made up 89 percent of all her research grants.”

“So basically Joe Biden’s nominating Pfizer to run the National Institutes of Health,” wrote one Twitter user who shared the screenshot. “This is open, evil Big Pharma corruption.”

But the passage referencing the Pfizer money was not included in the White House announcement. Instead, it comes from a 2022 story by the Daily Signal, a political news website published by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. The story ran after Bertagnolli was tapped to lead the National Cancer Institute, which is under NIH. It cites data from a Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services database that tracks payments certain health care providers receive from drug and medical device companies. The public database shows Pfizer’s grants went to the Alliance for Clinical Trials in Oncology, a nonprofit foundation that supports cancer research. Bertagnolli served as its president until becoming director at NCI. The Biden administration stressed the grants were awarded to the nonprofit, not directly to Bertagnolli.

“This not-for-profit ran large, nationwide clinical trials on cancer prevention,” Emilie Simons, a White House spokesperson, wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “Funding for large clinical trials like these come from a number of sources, including companies participating in the trials. That’s standard.”

Bertagnolli didn’t respond to emails seeking comment, but the Daily Signal article quotes her as saying in a statement that the Pfizer funding went to Alliance, and that “virtually all” of that money went towards a breast cancer clinical trial involving more than 6,000 patients across multiple countries.

“The funding was distributed across many different health care institutions—both academic and community—to conduct the trial,” she said in the statement. Suzanne George, the alliance’s interim chair, backed up Bertagnolli’s comments, saying the majority of the funding supported clinical trials of palbociclib, which was developed by Pfizer under the brand name Ibrance for the treatment of breast cancer.

"Dr. Bertagnolli did not directly or personally receive any of these funds,” she wrote in an email. Pfizer, meanwhile, declined to comment specifically on Bertagnolli or the research it funded, but said in a written statement that “grantees are not individuals but rather institutions chosen for their credentials and experience.”

— Associated Press writer Philip Marcelo in New York contributed this report.

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