Pfizer, the EU and disappearing ink – POLITICO

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It’s as if Pfizer’s massive COVID-19 vaccine deal with the European Commission was written with vanishing ink: the more time passes, the more the details seem to fade.

For some time, controversy has raged over text messages allegedly exchanged between Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla ahead of the April 2021 deal for 1.1 billion doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine. The content and even the existence of the messages have been shrouded in secrecy, with requests for clarification met with a big “no comment”.

On Friday, the Commission said it had reached a long-standing agreement with Pfizer to revise the terms of the contract. The new agreement reduces the 450 million doses that were still to be delivered in 2023 and spreads them over the next four years.

That’s all the information you get. The Commission does not reveal the new number of doses that member countries must buy, nor any of the financial terms of the amended contract.

Lack of transparency has been a constant feature of this agreement. The Commission has refused a Brussels journalist’s “access to documents” request to see von der Leyen’s alleged messages with Bourla – despite criticism from the European Ombudsman. The EU budget watchdog was barred from reviewing the negotiations, with no explanation given. The European Parliament’s committee on COVID-19 fared no better, with von der Leyen dodging a summons to appear before MPs to answer their questions.

Victory over vexation

It wasn’t always like that. The Commission first made a point of displaying the agreement, which made it possible to obtain up to 1.8 billion doses of the vaccine that the American pharmaceutical company jointly developed with the German BioNTech.

Back then, in April 2021, COVID-19 was still raging and governments were scrambling to ensure access to limited vaccine stocks; a few months earlier, the recently exited Brexit UK had secured a preferential supply line from AstraZeneca.

Then came the big deal. It was the third agreement the Commission had signed with BioNTech/Pfizer, but it eclipsed everything that had come before. He compelled the bloc to buy 900 million doses of the vaccine in advance – enough to vaccinate the EU’s adult population three times. Eventually an option for an additional 200 million doses was exercised, bringing the total number of doses to 1.1 billion, worth €21.5 billion based on vaccine prices reported by the Financial Times. .

Von der Leyen even made a victory lap in The New York Times, revealing that she played an unusual personal role in the talks leading up to the deal. In the article, titled ‘How Europe Sealed a Pfizer Vaccine Deal with Texts and Calls’, the US newspaper cites interviews with von der Leyen and Bourla, revealing that the pair texted each other and called each other as the contract approached. At the top of the article, von der Leyen is pictured staring, eyes steely, from the Berlaymont to Brussels, lending her face to the affair.

More recently, however, the contract has become something of an embarrassment for the EU executive. COVID-19 is down and vaccination rates have stagnated, but EU countries are still bound by the contract to buy large numbers of doses, which cost billions of euros.

The deal committed Europe to buying 650 million doses in 2022, and another 450 million in 2023. Their shelf life is short and many have already been thrown away: German public broadcaster BR24 in January put the number at 36, 6 million doses in Germany, while Austria’s health minister previously said 17.5 million doses were unused in the country and “available for vaccination”.

Controversy raged over text messages allegedly exchanged between Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla | John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

The waste raises the question of why the Commission – with the support of national governments – signed so many doses so far in advance without any withdrawal clause depending on pandemic conditions, especially given the variability of the waves of coronavirus that was already evident by April 2021.

EU officials argued that it was necessary insurance and that it was better to spend money on doses that could be wasted than to need them and not have them. . A coalition of Central and Eastern European countries see things differently. They have demanded to renegotiate the contracts, as their finances have been hit by the energy shock of the Russian invasion of Ukraine coupled with an influx of refugees from across the border.

Burn after reading

Journalists, politicians and watchdogs have all tried to shed light on the unusual way the contract was negotiated, so far without success.

Alexander Fanta, a Brussels journalist at Netzpolitik, filed an “access to documents” request after reading the New York Times article. The Commission said it could not find the texts, which earned it a slap on the wrist from the European Ombudsman.

The EU’s budget watchdog, the European Court of Auditors, has also encountered a wall of silence. In a report on the EU’s vaccine supply published in September last year, the agency’s auditors said that, unlike other contract negotiations, the Commission refused to provide accounts of discussions with Pfizer, whether in the form of minutes, names of experts consulted, agreed terms, or other evidence.

Then it was the turn of the European Parliament. The COVID-19 committee, led by Belgian socialist Kathleen Van Brempt, fared no better than the listeners. Twice, the CEO of Pfizer refused to appear before MEPs. And senior figures in Parliament blocked a public cross-examination of the Commission President.

Even The New York Times, where von der Leyen first reported his success, is now suing the Commission to get the text messages published.

Isn’t it ironic

In theory, the Commission still touts the contract as a success. In his public announcement on Friday, he writes that “the implementation of our European vaccine strategy has exceeded all expectations.” But the way the news was announced shows some embarrassment.

The news fell on a Friday lunchtime ahead of a three-day weekend. There was no official announcement during the Commission’s daily briefing to journalists; instead, a mention was hidden in an email news digest. These are not the hallmarks of an institution trying to make a splash.

Asked about the decision not to disclose the revised dose total, a detail that was disclosed in the original contract, a Commission spokesperson referred POLITICO to national governments. “Vaccination strategies or vaccination programs are designed and implemented by Member States,” the spokesperson said.

Von der Leyen is likely hoping this latest deal will put the matter to bed, before she likely stands next year for a second term. With the pandemic officially over and an audience wanting to forget everything, she just might get her wish.

But she’s not quite out of the woods yet. The European Public Prosecutor’s Office announced last October that it was reviewing the EU’s vaccine supply. The financial crimes watchdog did not say which contract it was looking at or who it was investigating, but if the European Public Prosecutor’s Office turns out to have the Commission President in its sights, she could go from the certainty of having been.


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