Thursday

2nd Dec 2021

Investigation

EU's 'secret' vaccine negotiators: Who's dealing with Big Pharma?

  • Richard Bergström spent nearly three decades in the private pharmaceutical sector, including five years as head of its European lobby, the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations. 'That's a long time ago', he said (Photo: Investigate Europe)
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When it accepted the titanic task of procuring coronavirus vaccines on behalf of the EU, the EU Commission set up a Steering Board to oversee the tenders.

All 27 member states selected their own delegates.

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Among themselves, they also picked seven countries to form a Joint Negotiation Team directly dealing with multinationals. These are Spain, France, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, and Poland. Their representatives are often the main point of contact for drugmakers, alongside Sandra Gallina, the EU director-general for health.

To date, "Team Europe" has secured up to 4.6 billion doses, for a population of just 448 million people. This glut could end up wasted, as suppliers managed to impose strict clauses about donations.

They have also been able to increase their prices. As per their latest deals with the EU, Pfizer, and Moderna can now respectively charge €19.50 and $25.50 [€22] for jabs. Europeans were paying between €15.50 and $22.50 in the first orders. Yet, one study by Imperial College London shows that mRNA shots could be produced for as little as $1.18.

Manufacturers are obviously themselves familiar with negotiators. But despite billions of taxpayers' money at stake, the commission insists they cannot be known by the public.

Replying to a parliamentary question, EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides said: "Such pressure could indeed negatively influence or jeopardise the ongoing negotiation process and its objective of getting an access to a safe and affordable Covid-19 vaccine."

In an email to Investigate Europe (IE), a spokesperson for the commission repeated that there was no plan to share the list of negotiators.

However, the European Parliament disagrees. Just a few weeks ago, lawmakers adopted a resolution reiterating their demand for names and contracts to be disclosed.

During the debate, the text's rapporteur, Dolors Montserrat, blamed such secrecy for misinformation.

"[Transparency] is a prerequisite for stimulating and maintaining public confidence in vaccines, for ending vaccine nationalism and guaranteeing the legitimacy of the EU's joint procurement," said Montserrat, a conservative Spanish MEP.

Meanwhile, five green MEPs have filed a case application to the European Court of Justice, in a bid to gain "transparent access to the contracts."

NGOs and civil society have also continued to push in that direction. "The public has the right to know who is negotiating on the EU's behalf," according to Olivier Hoedeman of the watchdog Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO). "This is a pre-condition for assessing potential conflicts of interest?"

Investigate Europe therefore decided to shed at least some light on these dealmakers. And in spite of Brussels' discretion, some identities were not so hidden after all.

Bergström, an ex-lobbyist with pharma ties

Sweden's Richard Bergström was the easiest to track. As the country's vaccine coordinator, he makes no secret of his involvement with the Steering Board and the Joint Negotiation Team. And he is the only current negotiator who initially responded to IE's questions.

In an interview in September 2021, he said: "I don't see the need for this secrecy, hence why you found me. Because my government thinks it can't be secret that I'm doing this job."

Bergström has not always worked for the Swedish administration.

He spent nearly three decades in the private pharmaceutical sector, including five years as head of its European lobby, the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA).

When quizzed about his resume, he avoided the topic, arguing: "That's a long time ago. The results have proven that we have been pretty good negotiators, I don't want to talk about myself."

Since that interview, IE discovered more bonds that Bergström seems to have kept with the industry, besides his official mandate.

On his LinkedIn profile, Bergström's current employment is described as follows: vaccine coordinator for Sweden, senior partner at Hoelzle Buri Partners Consulting (HBPC), managing director at Bergström Consulting GmbH and senior advisor at Guardtime.

LinkedIn screenshot (Photo: Investigate Europe)

HBPC is a Swiss consultancy whose website lists Bergström as one of their lobbyists, thanks to his "success record" on the European health care market. According to its own description, the company provides support to two major pharmaceutical lobbies: VIPS, in Switzerland, and PhRMA, in the United States. PhRMA's members include Astrazeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and Sanofi, which all have contracts with the EU.

Bergström Consulting GmbH is a Swiss business with a scarce online presence. Public records show that its CEO is none other than Walter Peter Hölzle, the owner of HBPC and a former head of VIPS for 12 years.

HBPC and Bergström Consulting even share the same address in Zug, Switzerland.

Guardtime is a global specialist in digital security. Its flagship product, VaccineGuard, is a vaccine certificate service that has been used in Hungary, Estonia and Iceland during the Covid-19 pandemic. On the group's webpage, Bergström formerly held the title of "vice president for Life Sciences". In August 2020, it was changed to "senior advisor".

What's more, Bergström was, until recently, a customer development officer at PharmaCCX, which he co-founded in 2016. The firm develops solutions to "facilitate agreements and deals between payers and pharmaceutical companies."

In February 2021, while he was already an EU negotiator, Bergström appeared in a promotional video with Nathan Sigworth, his then-partner at PharmaCCX. In the sequence, Bergström referred to his past at EFPIA, saying: "I was the chief lobbyist for Pharma in Brussels."

When Sigworth asked him where he was, he replied: "I'm in Stockholm, at the Ministry of Health here. I am preparing for the negotiations in the afternoon with the vaccine producers, which I do as part of the European Commission's negotiations."

Two months later, in April 2021, PharmaCCX announced that Bergström was leaving them. The formal reason given was his availability: "As he has become increasingly involved in this critical vaccine work he has not been able to contribute as actively to the company."

Subsequently, Bergström was dropped from the "meet our team" section of the website. But archives show that it previously portrayed him as "a chief lobbyist of the pharmaceutical industry in Europe" at the same time as "Sweden's Covid-19 vaccine coordinator."

All EU negotiators signed a declaration of absence of conflict of interest. Bergström's ties to the corporate world seem to have hitherto attracted little coverage.

Still, he did come under fire at home earlier this year for his handling of confidential information. Thanks to a freedom of information request (FOI), Swedish journalists revealed that Bergström had been forwarding negotiation-related correspondence from his ministry's email to his private Gmail account.

Bergström first denied wrongdoing, before admitting that the content of some emails were "classified documents" and that he "could have acted differently".

Now, Investigate Europe can report that Bergström has continued to forward sensitive information to his personal inbox. Through a fresh FOI, IE gained access to a redacted email log covering the period between 14 and 27 September, 2021.

Over these two weeks, Bergström forwarded 47 emails to his Gmail address. Sixteen of them had a blacked-out subject line, meaning they included what the Swedish government considered confidential content.

"When I am working from home (in Switzerland) I use my private devices for digital meetings," justified Bergström. "The forwarded emails are calendar invites (that may have company/vaccine names in the heading). Hence the standard redactions."

Bergström did not comment on his pharma links. The Swedish government did not answer questions either.

People close to the negotiations have told IE that the commission often relies on Bergström's expertise. "I can tell you with certainty that he's been the most knowledgeable there from the beginning," says one source. "Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I will let you draw your own conclusions."

One senior health official from a Nordic country reckons Bergström's career actually gives the EU an advantage on manufacturers: "He has competencies that are highly relevant in negotiations. He understands how far one can go. I am sure Bergström is a resource for public interests in this position."

On the contrary, Hoedeman of CEO argues that the commission has failed to scrutinise negotiators' connections. "Bergström has clear conflicts of interest and should never have been allowed to join the Joint Negotiation Team," says Hoedeman. "He is ideologically aligned with Big Pharma and their model of monopoly patents."

Health officials and doctors

Unlike Sweden, other member states have chosen representatives without lobbying experience. The Netherlands and Spain have officially shared their delegates' identities with Investigate Europe, although they turned down requests for interviews.

The Dutch government selected Roland Driece for both the Steering Board and the Joint Negotiation Team. Now director of international affairs at the Dutch health ministry, he is a civil servant who has held positions in health and European affairs departments.

The Spanish authorities appointed Maria Jesús Lamas to the Steering Board and César Hernandez Garcia to the Joint Negotiation Team. Both are health professionals at the head of the Spanish Medicine Agency (AEMPS).

In Italy, the picture remains blurry. When approached, Giovanni Rezza, the health ministry's director of prevention, confirmed that he is the Italian member of the Steering Board. A prominent epidemiologist, Rezza spent most of his career in public administration. In contrast to his openness, the Italian government itself has not replied to IE's questions about their envoy(s) to the Joint Negotiation Team.

As for Poland, no key officials could be singled out after weeks of research. The understanding is that Polish negotiators work for URPL, the country's medicines agency. A spokesperson refused to comment, referring us back to the commission. Several sources, however, deem Poland's sway to have been minimal in the proceedings, due to Warsaw's ongoing rift with the EU.

Germany's lack of transparency

Then there is Germany, whose lack of transparency on vaccines is a growing concern for civil society. The ministry of health did not concede any names, but neither did it deny those Investigate Europe found: Thomas Müller, Germany's director-general of medicinal products and Thiemo Steinrücken, one of his deputies.

People briefed on the matter have told IE that Müller sits on the Steering Board, while Steinrücken is "the guy for pretty much everything related to vaccine acquisition and distribution."

Steinrücken, a trained pharmacist, is the obvious choice, notes one person who attended meetings with him. "He is exactly the type Angela Merkel would send negotiating something important like this. Quiet, not very forward, extremely intelligent, competent, with a background in health."

However, Berlin has been acting as a mouthpiece for pharmaceutics, claim several sources. "Germany preaches for the interests of the industry, especially internationally," says one.

"Pfizer is the absolute winner in this situation. They can dictate the rules and, having proven to be the most reliable seller, they can afford to charge whatever they want."

Pfizer and its German partner BionNhave become the EU's main suppliers in the last round of contracts, with 1.8 billion doses ordered. BioNtech alone could lift the country's economy by 0.5 percent in 2021.

Germany intends to make over 600 million jabs a year, a third of the union's planned output. IE got access to a confidential document from the federal vaccine task force.

Judging by its content, the focus is national first and foremost. The terms of future agreements will contain the "right of the federal government to advance supply" and the obligation of setting up "production sites in Germany". "Transferability to the EU" is only "possible if needed" and there is no mention of fair distribution globally.

France's preference for civil servants

Whereas most member states' negotiators have health credentials, the French have been picked among civil servants from the ministry of the economy and finance. Sources within the French government have established two names: Pierre Cunéo for the Joint Negotiation Team and Edgar Tilly, who has been on the Steering Board for most of this year.

Both are members of the French Covid-19 vaccine task force.

Cunéo first joined the ministry in 2003 before moving to the national railway (SNCF). More recently, he was vice-president of the aerospace multinational Thales and advisor to Orea, a mining corporation. He was also director of Opale Defense, a consortium in charge of building the new French defence ministry. Cunéo was first publicly linked to the inoculation effort at a Senate hearing in June 2021.

Tilly, who graduated in 2018, is a former speechwriter for Bruno Le Maire, the French finance minister. Based on his Linkedin account, he joined the French task force in January 2021. Investigate Europe understands that Tilly is currently being replaced on the Steering Board.

French negotiators have changed several times since the pandemic started. Most of them have backgrounds in economics rather than health.

There is at least one exception: Jean-Christophe Dantonel, a biological scientist who was involved in the first series of agreements.

The French government did not formally confirm names. But a spokesperson told IE that at the heart of the crisis, its team consisted of non-medical officials from the finance ministry, who were in constant contact with the health ministry. From now on, the French seat on the Steering Board will be taken by the health ministry, the spokesperson added.

More secrecy in the future?

While lessons are being drawn from this pandemic, the European Commission is already gearing up for the next. In September this year, it announced the launch of the European Health Emergency preparedness and Response Authority (HERA).

As the spearhead in the fight against future viruses, its portfolio will include vaccines procurement. Everyone is not happy with this. EU lawmakers and several NGOs fear that HERA and its €6bn budget will be hard to scrutinise.

Author bio

Maxence Peigné is an investigative journalist with Investigate Europe.

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