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8th Dec 2022

EU Commission says it cannot find messages with Pfizer CEO

  • Ursula von der Leyen exchanged texts and calls for months with Pfizer CEO to seal 1.8 billion doses deal (Photo: EC - Audiovisual Service)
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The European Commission has been unable to find the text messages exchanged between president Ursula von der Leyen and the boss of giant pharmaceutical company Pfizer, the EU executive said in a letter to the EU ombudsman published on Wednesday (29 June).

Last year, the New York Times first revealed that von der Leyen and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla had been exchanging texts and calls for months to seal a deal for 1.8 billion doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine.

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The messages were then requested by journalist Alexander Fanta of news site netzpolitik.org, and a regular EUobserver writer, given the importance of the deal.

But the commission's refusal to grant access to these communications prompted the EU ombudsman Emily O'Reilly to criticise how the commission handled this freedom of information request.

Earlier this year, O'Reilly found that the commission staff had never explicitly asked the president's office to look for the text messages — calling on the EU executive to do a more exhaustive search.

The commission now says that it is unable to find such messages, but it previously argued that this type of "short-lived and ephemeral" communications do not fall under the scope of EU transparency rules on access to documents.

"The commission can confirm that the search undertaken by the President's cabinet for relevant text messages corresponding to the request for access to documents has not yielded any results," the EU transparency commissioner Vera Jourova said in the letter to the ombudsman.

The commission's response has been slammed by the ombudsman's office as "problematic" — with a full analysis expected to be published in the coming weeks.

In its response, the commission also says that it is considering recommending its staff not use messaging apps in a business context — which would, as a result, eliminate the need to keep a record of such instant communications.

Nevertheless, the lack of transparency surrounding these texts has triggered outrage among MEPs and civil society organisations — who criticised the commission for using tricks to avoid accountability.

Belgian socialist MEP Kathleen Van Brempt, who chairs the parliament's special committee on Covid-19, deemed the commission response as "unacceptable".

"The complete lack of transparency benefits the industry, not the European citizens," she tweeted.

The campaign SumOfUs has collected nearly 130,000 signatures in the EU to ask von der Leyen to publish the text messages.

Meanwhile, MEPs have been calling on the commission to reveal information on vaccine prices, since only a small group of lawmakers had access to heavily-redacted versions of the contracts.

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