Pfizer Is Suing a Long-Term Employee for Stealing 12,000 Documents

Employee allegedly transferred confidential data about COVID vaccine and cancer therapies.
Ameya Paleja

Pfizer Inc., the developers of the first COVID-19 vaccine that received approval from the Food and Drug Administration, is suing a senior member of its staff — an employee of 15 years — for stealing scores of documents, Reuters reported. The company also alleged that the employee has accepted a work offer from a competitor and is seeking a temporary restraining order and injunctive relief from the San Diego federal court. 

In a copy of the complaint that is available publicly, Pfizer alleged that its Associated Director of Statistics, Chun Xiao Li, breached her confidentiality agreement with the company by uploading more than 12,000 files from her company-issued laptop to her personal devices.

"Scores of confidential documents" allegedly stolen

The files that were transferred without the necessary permissions from Pfizer contain "scores of confidential documents" including some related to its COVID-19 vaccine as well as monoclonal antibodies, avelumab and elranatamab, aimed at treating cancer. Pfizer said that it spent billions of dollars in developing these therapies and called elranatamab its next blockbuster drug. 

Providing details on the allegations, Pfizer said that Ms. Li was hired as Associated Director of Statistics in its Global Product Development (GPD) team and had access to proprietary, confidential, and trade-secret information related to various products. To protect its intellectual property Pfizer trains its employees on data security measures and also tracks employee activity on company-issued devices. 

Pfizer's data security team found that Ms. Li had transferred over 12,000 documents from her Pfizer-issued laptop to a Google Drive account, while away from work. Pfizer then investigated her official email to find that Ms. Li had received an offer of employment from Xencor, a company developing monoclonal antibody-based treatments.  

During internal investigations, Ms. Li confirmed that she had downloaded the files from the Google Drive account to her personal laptop and an external hard drive to organize them for her offline use. Ms. Li also handed over a laptop that she had used to transfer files to aid the investigation. However, a digital forensic analysis done by Pfizer points to the possibility that Ms. Li provided a 'decoy' laptop since it was hardly used on the dates the file transfers were done. Hundreds of files with Pfizer-related names were also deleted the night before Ms. Li gave the external hard drive to Pfizer, the company alleged in its complaint. 

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Ms. Li has since resigned from the company and Pfizer claims that she will take up employment with Xencor, where she might use Pfizer's proprietary information, and hence called for an injunction. With the analysis of the 12,000 documents still ongoing at Pfizer, the company has listed five unnamed defendants in the complaint, apart from Ms. Li, but has not named Xencor. Ms. Li has not provided any comments so far and Xencor has refused to comment. 

US District Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo granted Pfizer's request for a temporary block but will take a call on the injunction during the next hearing on December 9, during which Pfizer's lawyers can continue to review accounts and devices, the Independent reported

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