covid-19 vaccine clinical trial
(Image: AAP/David Mariuz)

Beneath the euphoria of the government’s announcement this week that it had “secured a deal” to supply a COVID-19 vaccine to all Australians, there were signs of the political lobbying machine at work.

All drug companies have powerful government relations squads to help grease the wheels of power, and AstraZeneca is no different.

Kieran Schneemann is head of the government affairs team at the Australian arm of the British pharmaceutical company, which on Tuesday reached an informal agreement with the Morrison government to supply Australians with the University of Oxford COVID-19 vaccine – assuming it clears clinical trials.

As several commentators on Twitter were keen to point out, Schneemann is one of many health lobbyists to have a rich past in politics. From 1996 to 2006 he held a number of senior roles in the Howard government, including as chief of staff to former Liberal senator Nick Minchin and former Coalition MP Peter McGauran. He also held the role of secretary of the joint standing committee on electoral matters and was a director of parliamentary relations at the foreign and commonwealth office.

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Pharmaceutical companies are hugely influential in Canberra, employing vast numbers of lobbyists and donating millions to both political parties. And like most industries they take advantage of a revolving door between industry and government.

The fact that AstraZeneca has a former government staffer in a senior lobbying role is hardly surprising or scandalous. But it does show just how well-connected the industry is to the government.

After leaving politics, Schneemann was appointed chief executive of the drug manufacturer peak body Medicines Australia, which works closely with members of parliament and government departments on the development of policy.

He then went on to head one of the country’s most powerful lobby groups, the Pharmacy Guild of Australia, until 2009, when he left over an apparent falling out with the group’s president and board. 

AstraZeneca has secured deals with the US and Britain worth billions. But Prime Minister Scott Morrison was forced to clarify yesterday that the “deal” was in fact a “letter of intent” that would allow Australia to manufacture the drug locally. The government says if a deal goes ahead, it would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars and ensure Australians would be among the first in the world to receive the Oxford vaccine. 

Certainly for drug industry lobbyists — and the government — the stakes could not be higher.