21st Sep 2023


EU vaccine transparency: a shot in the dark

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One of the European Parliament's key tasks is budgetary control: scrutinising if billions of taxpayers' money are spent in a proper and useful way. But in case of the EU's response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the tens of billions of euros the EU spends on purchasing vaccines from powerful pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer, it has renounced this task.

From recent letters seen by Corporate Europe Observatory, it seems the European Parliament president Roberta Metsola prevented her own institution doing its work by denying MEPs access to crucial information.

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This adds to the culture of secrecy installed by EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and her refusal to be transparent and be held accountable by the special COVI-committee that was created on 10 March last year.

COVI's mission was to examine the EU's response to the pandemic and identifying lessons to be drawn to be better prepared for future health crises. During the COVI meetings, the debate on how to improve transparency was omnipresent. On (Wednesday) 12 July the European Parliament plenary will vote on the final COVI-report.


From the very start, COVI asked the European Commission to get full access for its members to the non-redacted contracts the EU signed with Big Pharma. The European Commission dragged its feet over the whole year.

The COVI-coordinators on 13 July last year requested an extended access to the contracts, also for MEP assistants, political advisors and the secretariat.

Metsola forwarded this request in a letter dated 16 September to von der Leyen. What happened after is not entirely clear.

But what is clear from correspondence is that Metsola did in the following months not follow the demands of COVI but struck a deal with von der Leyen instead.

On 15 November 2022, COVI-chair Kathleen van Brempt (S&D) again wrote a letter to the 'Classified Information Unit' of the European Parliament requesting access to the negotiation files and the contracts, which the parliament had already received in autumn 2021. The non-redacted vaccine contracts were then accessible in a secret reading room (with confidentiality restrictions) for a selected and unofficial group of MEPs: the Vaccine Contact Group.

Pfizer decides?

The arm-wrestling on democratic needed access to crucial information continued till the very last moment.

In the very last phase of negotiations by MEPs on their report, the COVI-secretariat suddenly received a questionnaire sent by HERA (Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority, the newly created EC agency) with the accompanying message that 'answers to these questions could accelerate the handling of the access request from COVI to the contracts'.

It raised some eyebrows, not only because of the lousy timing, but because the questionnaire was written by ... Pfizer.

The pharmaceutical company largely wanted to know from MEPs why they wanted information from non-redacted contracts including information on issues as liability and pricing, and what they would do with it.

It's a clear cut manifestation of what we at CEO call 'corporate capture' when a pharmaceutical giant wants MEPs to justify and explain why they need commercially protected information, to do their work in the general interest.

After answers were sent, on 31 May this year, the very last day that COVI negotiators were discussing their final report, von der Leyen writes to Metsola that the COVID-19 contracts will be made available "according to your request".

Meaning that the information is only accessible to ... the Vaccine Contact Group. The same day a few of these MEPs also received a secretive briefing on this procedure and the latest vaccine deal struck by the European Commission and Pfizer, worth billions. Disclosure not allowed.

The draft report voted by COVI 12 June has — under centre-right pressure — rather vague language on transparency. Days before civil society organisations expressed to several MEPs their "concern" about the "compromise language" in the report: "Calls on the commission to publish the non-redacted version of the purchase agreements for the general public after their respective termination dates, including all information of public interest, when legally possible".

It's crystal clear that "when legally possible" would preclude any disclosure of all Covid-19 contracts, which all contain a confidentiality clause. It means that the European Parliament report basically sticks to the current status quo, and that once again, private interests are placed above the public's right to know. Without full disclosure of all past and future purchase agreements, the European parliament cannot hold the commission to account.

Now it seems that was precisely what EPP leaders intended.

In the meantime the EP itself seems to evolve a bit like in George Orwell's famous book Animal Farm: all MEPs are equal, but some MEPs are more equal than others.

Over the past two years Corporate Europe Observatory has published extensive research showing that the EU response to the pandemic was heavily influenced by the commercial interests of Big Pharma.

At the same time, in our 25 years of making Freedom of Information requests, CEO has rarely seen such a level of opacity.

Green MEP Michèle Rivasi rightfully states that the lack of accountability is fertile ground for extreme-right and populists in the European election year.

In the context of major upcoming legislative change, COVI's work could be a chance to re-balance power between Big Pharma interests and public interests. But in the aftermath of the pandemic, it seems centre-right politicians are fine with keeping the steering wheel of public health policy in the hands of companies like Pfizer.

Author bio

Hans van Scharen researcher at Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), the NGO which researches corporate lobbying in Brussels.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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