There is just too much murkiness for anyone, including MEPs, to reach anything like an informed decision.
It is time for the EU to start thinking about mandatory vaccination. That was the message issued last Wednesday (Dec. 1) by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, as Europe once again becomes ground zero for the Covid-19 pandemic. Austria has already unveiled plans to mandate vaccines for every resident in the country over the age of 12, becoming the first European nation to take such a step. Under the proposed bill, anyone who refuses to get the Covid-19 jab after February 1, 2022, will face a fine of up to €600 every three months.
The German government is also considering taking a similar step after it recently imposed tougher restrictions on unvaccinated people in the country. In Greece, which already has some of the highest poverty rates in Europe, authorities have said they will start fining unvaccinated people over the age of 60 €100 for every month they remain unjabbed after January 15. Almost two-thirds of of Greece’s 11-million population is fully vaccinated but more than 520,000 people over 60 still haven’t had the jab.
“Greeks over the age of 60… must book their appointment for a first jab by January 16,” the premier said in a statement to the cabinet. “Their vaccination is henceforth compulsory.”
A Huge Can of Worms
Van der Leyen’s proposal to discuss EU-wide mandatory vaccination opens up a huge can of worms. How will the governments of the EU’s 27 member states go about forcing, in most cases, a large minority — and in cases such as Romania and Bulgaria a sizeable majority — of the population to take vaccines against their will that have already proven to be incredibly leaky against the Delta variant? The way things are current looking, the vaccines could well be even less effective against a variant like Omicron, with such a large number of mutations.
The overwhelming body of evidence does suggest that the current crop of vaccines do reduce the risk of hospitalisation and death resulting from Covid-19. But is that enough in and of itself to justify obligating virtually an entire continent to take them? What sort of exemptions on medical, ethical or religious grounds will be allowed? What sorts of punishments or privations will be meted out to those who continue to refuse to take the vaccine?
Once the precedent of universal mandatory vaccination in the EU is established, will it be extended to other already existing vaccinations such as the flu jab or new vaccinations that come on line in the coming years? That would represent a huge windfall for pharmaceutical companies developing innovative gene therapies.
The Covid-19 vaccinations have already generated bumper profits for their manufacturers. As Oxfam recently reported, the companies behind two of the most successful COVID-19 vaccines — Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna — are making combined profits of $65,000 every minute.” Even as the vaccines’ efficacy against the Delta variant has come under the spotlight, the manufacturers have still managed to sharply increase their prices, as EUObserver reports:
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.
Mission creep has certainly infected the EU’s vaccine passport system. In its own regulation 2021/953, the EU stated that “[t]he issuance of [Covid] certificates… should not lead to discrimination on the basis of the possession of a specific category of certificate”. This basic principle was reiterated by Resolution 2361 (2021) of the Council of Europe, Europe’s foremost human rights organisation. Yet many EU Member States have used the EU’s Green Pass legislation to justify visiting unprecedented discrimination upon those who do not possess a vaccine certificate, with both Austria and Germany even going so far as declaring a so-called “lockdown of the unvaccinated.”
The long-term risks of the vaccines are also as yet unclear. More than a million adverse events have already been reported to the European Database of Suspected Adverse Drug Reaction Reports (EUdraVigilance), the EU’s equivalent of VAERS. In addition, the EU — like most jurisdictions — has granted the vaccine manufacturers wide-scale immunity from liability if anything goes wrong. As such, any compensation for vaccine injuries will probably have to come from the respective national governments.
These are all major issues that will hopefully be taken into consideration in any public debate about mandatory vaccination. Unfortunately, under the current state of affairs it is all but impossible for the European Union to hold an open, transparent discussion on these issues, since most EU lawmakers do not even have the necessary information at their disposal to reach a sound, informed decision. In many cases they do not even know who has been negotiating the deals with the vaccine makers on behalf of EU citizens.
The agreements the Commission signed with the vaccine manufacturers earlier this year are also shrouded in secrecy, even for Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). Five MEPs from the Greens/EFA Group have submitted a case application to the European Court of Justice alleging “implicit refusal” from the Commission to provide access to information regarding the vaccine contracts, as Euractiv reported in October:
Five MEPs of the Greens/EFA submitted the case application on 22 October “after months of correspondence between the Greens/EFA and Commission, during which the Commission did not agree to provide transparent access to the contracts,” according to a press release published on Friday (29 October).
The MEPs party to the case are Margrete Auken, Tilly Metz, Jutta Paulus, Michèle Rivasi, and Kimberly van Sparrentak. Kimberly van Sparrentak, a Dutch MEP, said it had been nine months since the Commission was formally asked for access to the full set of advance purchase contracts for vaccines.
“For nine months the Commission has refused to disclose them, but after being heavily criticised for the opacity of its vaccine policy, they have published heavily redacted contracts,” she said adding that it is “clearly insufficient”.
The Greens/EFA Group stated that transparency in the vaccine proceedings was not ensured despite health being a “matter of public interest”, and added that the European Commission had failed to consider the overriding public interest in the disclosure of the vaccine contracts.
The information the MEPs are demanding access to includes details on liability and indemnification, vaccine production (quantities, locations, prices and cost of research and development) and the names of members of the steering group appointed by the Commission and Member States to negotiate the contracts.
It is worth recalling that some of the conditions in Pfizer’s vaccine contracts with countries in Latin America were so onerous that some governments, such as Brazil and Argentina, initially refused to sign along the dotted line. In its negotiations with both countries, Pfizer asked for sovereign assets to be put up as collateral for any future legal costs. Brazil’s then health minister said in January: “I guess I don’t need to repeat it, but I’ll be succinct: complete disclaimer for side-effects from today to infinity. That simple.” In the end both countries relented.
Destroying Evidence (Again)?
Von der Layen herself has been accused of deleting communications with Albert Bourla, the CEO of Pfizer, which by October had 80% market share of the Covid-19 vaccines in Europe. In April, as the Commission’s negotiations with Pfizer were drawing to a close, the New York Times reported that von der Leyen and Bourla had been in regular contact by phone and text messages as they tried to seal a deal to buy/sell 1.8 billion doses of the coronavirus vaccine. Most of this information should be readily available to EU lawmakers. But as Der Spiegel reported in November, the Commission denies having possession of the communications between von der Leyen and Bourla:
Texts and other short messages are by their “nature a short-lived document which does not contain in principle important information concerning matters relating to the policies, activities and decisions of the Commission,” wrote Ilze Juhansone, the Commission’s secretary-general. In that respect, “the Commission record-keeping policy would in principle exclude instant messaging.” This means that if the Commission wants to keep something in the dark, it can simply use WhatsApp.
The spokesperson didn’t answer the question as to whether von der Leyen’s messages to Bourla were deleted, whether they still exist or whether the Commission just doesn’t know. And that principle still applies today, a Commission spokesperson confirmed when asked by DER SPIEGEL and its international partners. After all, the spokesperson said, “there are no technical means to capture text messages.” However, in its internal rules issued in 2015, the Commission itself wrote that important texts and similar messages should be copied into a mail or registered in some other way.
This is not the first time von der Leyen has been caught deleting sensitive information. In December 2019, less than a month into her new job at the helm of the EU’s executive branch, it was revealed that a mobile phone she had used as German defence minister had been wiped clean of all data, as Politico reported at the time:
Members of a German parliamentary committee investigating [a contracting] scandal cried foul over the deletion. They had wanted to examine the phone as part of their probe into how lucrative contracts from the defense ministry were awarded to outside consultants without proper oversight, and whether a network of informal personal connections facilitated those deals.
An official from the ministry told the committee on Thursday that the phone, which lawmakers had demanded since February be examined as evidence, had been wiped in August — the same month that von der Leyen left the ministry after she had been elected as European Commission president (German newspaper Welt first reported about the wiped phone).
Vaccine Passports Not Working (And Are Illegal According to a Belgian Court)
That the EU is shifting its focus toward mandatory vaccines may be interpreted as a tacit admission that the EU’s Covid-19 certificate — the so-called Green Pass, introduced at the end of June — has failed to contain the virus. Five months after its introduction, Europe is once again the epicentre of the global pandemic. Since Rome took the unprecedented step of banning all unvaccinated Italians from being able to earn a living within the formal economy, in mid-October, the number of daily cases has surged five fold. In France, one of the first countries to ban people without the vaccine passport* from accessing all hospitality venues, case numbers began rising exponentially in mid-October and are now close to setting a record high.
Rather than reducing infection risk, the Green Pass – and all the national iterations it has spawned since – may have actually led to more coronavirus infections as opposed to fewer, by encouraging those who are vaccinated to let down their guard. When Belgium’s Covid Safe Ticket (CST) was introduced, not only did it lead to a negligible increase in vaccine uptake but public venues and events that require a CST were allowed to drop face mask and social distancing measures, says Belgian microbiologist Emmanuel André:
“Therefore, the CST led to the opposite of what was expected, also because other measures were phased out when it was introduced… Masks, alongside the vaccine and good ventilation, remain one of the most important ways of protecting against the virus.”
Covid-19 cases are now at a record high in Belgium. Last Tuesday, a court in Wallonia, the French-speaking region of southern Belgium, ruled that the CST was illegal. The case was brought by a non-profit organization called “Notre bon droit” (Our good right), which is also contesting the legality of vaccine passports in France.
According to the judgement, rules requiring everyone to show their CST before entering cafés, restaurants, gyms and cultural venues represented a disproportionate constraint on individual freedoms. The court also ruled that the CST may also contravene European law and the right to the protection of personal data.
If the Walloon government doesn’t rectify its policies within seven days of the judgement, it will have to pay a fine of €5,000 for every day it continues to enforce the use of the CST, reports the Belgian daily Le Soir. The regional government said it will appeal the decision. It also claims the ruling does not affect in any way its ability to enforce vaccine passport measures.
“Notre bon droit” has launched a similar case against the CST in Brussels. If the same verdict is reached, there will be no escaping the irony: a court in the EU’s capital, where the Green Pass was conceived just over five months ago, will have ruled that vaccine passports are illegal.
* To qualify for France’s vaccination passport, the so-called “pass sanitaire,” you need to be fully vaccinated, to have tested negative for Covid in the past 24 hours or have suffered a Covid infection in the past 180 days.