Concerns are rising about the EU Commission’s ongoing opacity over its relations with Pfizer. But this is not the first time von der Leyen has been caught deleting sensitive information regarding deals with large corporations.
As readers may recall, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen found herself in hot water late last year after being accused of deleting mobile phone communications with Albert Bourla, the CEO of Pfizer. In April 2021, the Commission’s negotiations with Pfizer were drawing to a close precisely at a time that a desperate von del Leyen was taking heavy flak for failing to make the Commission’s advance purchase agreements with AstraZeneca legally airtight. As the NYT reported, much of the negotiations to seal a deal to buy/sell 1.8 billion doses of Pfizer BioNTech’s vaccine were conducted via phone and text messages.
None of those communications have been made public. In fact, they appear to have been destroyed. At the same time, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have been kept in the dark about much of the content of the Commission’s contracts with vaccine makers, which has led several MEPs to file a suit with the European Court of Justice in April. The Commission has only published heavily redacted versions of its advance purchase agreement and contract with Pfizer, which lacked information about vaccine production, pricing, delivery, payment, clinical trials, liability and indemnification.
Delete After Reading
In May 2021, the Belgian journalist Alexander Fanta made a freedom of information (FOI) request for von der Leyen’s text messages with Pfizer. The Commission’s initial response was to stonewall her, arguing that its “record-keeping policy would in principle exclude instant messaging.” Indeed, as Fanta notes in a recent Politico article, the Commission has never archived a single text message, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that text messages are playing an increasingly important role in EU politics.
European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly got involved later in the year. Her inquiry concluded that the European Commission’s refusal to properly consider the request constitutes “maladministration”:
“The narrow way in which this public access request was treated meant that no attempt was made to identify if any text messages existed. This falls short of reasonable expectations of transparency and administrative standards in the Commission…
Not all text messages need to be recorded, but text messages clearly do fall do fall under the EU transparency law and so relevant text messages should be recorded. It is not credible to claim otherwise.”
O’Reilly also asked the Commission to conduct a more extensive search for the text messages in question. That was last December. Last week, the Commission finally gave a formal response, seven months after O’Reilly’s request. The message was simple: the Commission cannot and does not need to find the text messages.
“Due to their short-lived and ephemeral nature,” text messages “in general do not contain important information relating to policies, activities and decisions of the Commission,” wrote European Vice Commissioner for Values and Transparency Vera Jourová.
Now, text messages may be ephemeral — especially if you delete them as quickly as possible — but the results of them are not. In this case, we are talking about the results of negotiations between the CEO of one of the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturers and the president of the EU’s executive branch, which is clearly a matter of intense public interest. After all, the eventual outcome of those negotiations was a deal worth tens of billions of euros, paid for with public funds — for a vaccine that the Commission has considered making mandatory for all EU citizens. Yet those citizens, as well as their elected representatives in the European Parliament, are being kept in the dark about the terms and conditions of that deal.
It is perhaps not surprising that the Commission and Pfizer want to keep everything under wraps. Pfizer’s vaccine contracts with countries in Latin America were so controversial 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.
Fighting Transparency At Every Turn
One seeming result of the negotiations between Bourla and von der Leyen is that the European Commission ended up paying a lot more for the Pfizer vaccine. According to portions of the contracts seen by the Financial Times, Pfizer’s shot increased in price to €19.50 from the €15.50 the EU had paid for the initial vaccines delivered in late December 2020. That price markup will have added an extra €7 billion or so to Pfizer’s revenues.
The Commission’s position on von der Leyen’s text messages flies in the face of the EU’s own transparency rules, as Fanta points out:
Von der Leyen herself stated in her Political Guidelines that if “Europeans are to have faith in our Union, its institutions should be open and beyond reproach on ethics, transparency and integrity.” The Commission has also told the European Parliament it is committed to “maximum transparency regarding the COVID-19 vaccines.”
And yet, it continues to fight transparency at every turn. In April, Commission lawyers won against a German tabloid journalist who sought access to meeting minutes, legal advice and other documents related to COVID-19 vaccines. The court found that the Commission’s desire for secrecy overrode the public interest in the matter. And in a response to the Ombudsman published yesterday, the Commission continued to hold its line.
Transparency campaigners and members of the European Parliament are aghast at the implications of all this. By exempting a whole category of content from FOI legislation, the European institutions are creating a massive loophole. And a no-disclosure form of communication will be duly exploited by the likes of fossil fuel lobbyists, arms traders and governments in Europe and beyond, all who want to keep their dealings with the EU a secret.
Not the First Time
As I noted in my previous article, “Why An Open, Transparent, Informed Debate About Mandatory Vaccination Is All But Impossible in the EU“, published in early December, 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).
Interestingly, one of the companies at the center of the contracting scandal was the US consulting firm Mckinsey & Company, which is currently mired in controversy over the role it played in facilitating the US’ opioid epidemic (see Yves’ recent article, “New York Times Shows How McKinsey “Guided” Major Opioid Players, Causing Even More Deaths“). Under vdL’s tenure Germany´s Defense Ministry awarded highly lucrative contracts to outside consultants, including Mckinsey, without proper oversight. All of this happened after vdL appointed Katrin Suder, a former Mckinsey consultant, as her permanent state secretary in the Ministry. Coincidentally, vdL’s son, David, began working at Mckinsey’s Palo Alto Office in 2016, three years after vdL became Germany’s Minister of Defense.
Mckinsey was also at the center of a recent contracting scandal involving Emmanuel Macron’s government. Under Macron, spending on consultancy firms by the French government and civil service has soared to nearly €1 billion. Among other things, Mckinsey has been involved in developing the government’s COVID-19 testing programmes, vaccination and the health pass, just as it has with other governments around the world. According to a French health ministry official cited by Politico in Jan 2021, consultants from the firm have been seated at the strategy table since the government’s vaccination plan was unveiled in early December, and maybe even before then.
The Dangers of Ongoing Opacity
Given the fact that Pfizer BioNtech’s vaccines are all but guaranteed to continue playing a front-line role in the EU’s COVID-19 response, the ongoing opacity over the Commission’s dealings with Pfizer is a serious cause for concern. The rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in the EU began over a year and a half ago yet most EU lawmakers are still being kept in the dark about many aspects of the deal the Commission struck with Pfizer over 15 months ago.
Today, Pfizer and BioNTech are not only working on an Omicron-adapted COVID-19 vaccine, which will probably be authorized post haste by the European Medicines Agency (EMA); they are also trying to develop a (presumably non-sterilizing) vaccine for all coronaviruses. At the same time, the governments of EU Member States are beginning to complain about the vast stockpiles of unused Pfizer-BioNTech accumulating in their respective countries.
In mid-June Reuters cited the example of Poland, a country of around 38 million people, which has 30 million COVID-19 vaccines in stock and yet will still need to buy another 70 million under existing agreements:
In a letter sent to the Commission earlier in June, and seen by Reuters, the Polish Health Minister Adam Niedzielski together with his counterparts from Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania urged a “reduction of the amounts” of vaccines being ordered.
They said the contracts were agreed when it was impossible to predict how the pandemic would develop, and they should now be changed as the situation is improving.
An EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said in May that EU countries would likely lose any legal case brought against suppliers because contracts could not be changed unilaterally.
There is currently no legal case, officials said.
In other parts of the world, judges are taking matters into their own hands. For example, in Uruguay a judge by the name of Alejandro Recarey has demanded that the Government present detailed documentation on the terms and conditions of its contract Pfizer BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccines. The judge, who is presiding over a case brought by parents opposing the vaccination of children over the age of five, has also asked the government to disclose the biochemical composition of the vaccines.
Meanwhile, back in Brussels the EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly has described the Commission’s defense of von der Leyen’s destruction of evidence as “problematic on several points.” The closing decision, she said, will be published within the coming weeks.