Wednesday

21st Feb 2024

Opinion

EU vaccine transparency: a shot in the dark

Listen to article

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Get the EU news that really matters

Instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

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.

Foot-dragging

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.

Disclaimer

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

The EU Parliament Covid inquiry: the questions MEPs must ask

A basic lack of transparency around the EU's vaccines procurement negotiations has prevented effective public and parliamentary scrutiny. It has also made it impossible to answer some of the key questions we put forward here.

MEPs sue EU commission for Covid contract transparency

Five European lawmakers from the Greens lodged a lawsuit against the European Commission for not fully disclosing its Covid vaccine contracts with the pharmaceutical industry. The commission says it is in "the business of respecting contracts."

Could a new lawsuit blow open von der Leyen's Pfizer texts?

Messaging apps are an inescapable fact of life — it therefore comes as surprise that Ursula von der Leyen, claims that the EU's freedom of information law does not cover her text messages. The New York times is challenging that.

Von der Leyen slammed for not revealing Pfizer CEO texts

The European ombudsman has criticised the European Commission for its handling of a request for public access of text messages that were exchanged between president Ursula von der Leyen and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla.

Stakeholder

The looming threat of 'Disease X'

The profound impact of mRNA technology on pandemic preparedness cannot be understated, making it a cornerstone in our collective efforts to safeguard public health.

EU plan to let 17-year olds drive trucks is crazy

It's an astonishing proposition rooted in political interest rather than facts, with potentially dire consequences for all road users — especially for people who walk and cycle, warns the European Cycling Federation.

Latest News

  1. African leaders unveil continent-wide plan to buy medicines
  2. EU urban-rural divide not bridged by cohesion policy, report finds
  3. Impending Rafah disaster shows up politics of humanitarian aid
  4. Sweden heading into Nato, after Orbán-Kristersson deal
  5. EU-Israel trade agreement must be on table to stop Rafah attack
  6. 'Nightmare' 2024 sees Orbán struggle ahead of EU elections
  7. 'Crying wolf' win for chemicals lobby at Antwerp EU meeting
  8. Hungary blocks EU appeal for Israel not to strike Rafah

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic Food Systems Takeover at COP28
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersHow women and men are affected differently by climate policy
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersArtist Jessie Kleemann at Nordic pavilion during UN climate summit COP28
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP28: Gathering Nordic and global experts to put food and health on the agenda
  5. Friedrich Naumann FoundationPoems of Liberty – Call for Submission “Human Rights in Inhume War”: 250€ honorary fee for selected poems
  6. World BankWorld Bank report: How to create a future where the rewards of technology benefit all levels of society?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsThis autumn Europalia arts festival is all about GEORGIA!
  2. UNOPSFostering health system resilience in fragile and conflict-affected countries
  3. European Citizen's InitiativeThe European Commission launches the ‘ImagineEU’ competition for secondary school students in the EU.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  5. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  6. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA

Join EUobserver

EU news that matters

Join us