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HomeEuropeNo Texts. No Contracts. No Criticism. How Europe’s Covid Inquiry Went Dark

No Texts. No Contracts. No Criticism. How Europe’s Covid Inquiry Went Dark

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In March 2022, the European Parliament set up a special committee on COVID-19, fuelled by the desire to restore some democratic accountability to decisions where Europe’s lawmakers felt they had been sidelined.

The time seemed right for a transparency push. Just weeks earlier, the European Ombudsman had scolded the Commission for not searching for text messages allegedly exchanged between Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla in the run up to signing the EU’s biggest vaccine contract.

And the appointment of the Parliament’s Dieselgate investigator, Belgian MEP Kathleen Van Brempt, to lead the special committee, signalled they were serious.

Yet, 16 months later, we know nothing more about the mysterious texts and what little we do know about the vaccine contracts comes from media leaks.

What happened?

Sworn to secrecy

On May 30 this year, a little over a week before its final meeting, a select group of MEPs in the European Parliament’s committee on COVID-19 were sworn to secrecy and privately briefed on the outcome of a new vaccine deal struck by the European Commission with U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.

The attendees weren’t allowed to take notes or to bring their mobile phones inside the meeting room. Its existence was even kept secret from other lawmakers on the COVI committee. The assistant of one MEP who wasn’t invited to the session said that they found out about the meeting by accident, when they bumped into a colleague who spoke about it.

Inside the meeting, attendees were briefed by Pierre Delsaux, head of the European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA), according to two people who were in the room and who were granted anonymity because they were divulging confidential information.

Delsaux provided the MEPs with details of updates to the EU’s 2021 mega-contract to buy Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines, which had put the bloc on the hook for 1.1 billion doses. HERA had led negotiations to reduce the number of vaccine deliveries from the U.S. pharmaceutical giant, following a request from EU countries who were struggling with an oversupply.

It was the second of these secretive meetings. The first, on the same topic and also with HERA’s Delsaux, was held while negotiations were still underway, before the deal was finalized on May 26.

The confidential rendezvous mark an ironic reversal for a committee that had made transparency something of a calling card.

The time-limited COVID committee was launched in March 2022 to look into lessons learned from the European Union’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and give recommendations for the future.

Transparency was a running theme. For the past year, MEPs in the committee fought to shed light on negotiations between the European Commission and Pfizer, specifically the murky circumstances surrounding the preliminary negotiations of the bloc’s largest deal, which reportedly involved an exchange of text messages between Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla. 

It was this same contract that was amended in May.

The committee invited both Bourla and von der Leyen to public appearances in front of lawmakers. In both cases their efforts were stymied; Bourla refused, twice (the committee has no legal power to force a guest to appear), while von der Leyen’s invite was headed off by the Parliament’s Conference of Presidents, allowing her to speak to the Parliament’s leaders in private.

COVI, as the committee is called, also requested access to unredacted vaccine contracts — a demand Pfizer resisted.

As work continued, vaccine contract transparency became a flashpoint in negotiations over the committee’s report on lessons learned. The European People’s Party (EPP) group, which von der Leyen hails from, sought to downplay the issue. But all the other groups sought to include strong language. 

The Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group introduced amendments that “denounce[d]…  the lack of transparency in the negotiations.” They also asked the Commission to both publish the full and unredacted version of the contracts, and to clarify the circumstances around the negotiations. 

Into the dark

In the end, all went quiet. The select group of MEPs briefed on the updated contract terms agreed to sign “solemn declarations,” in which they promised not to share information from the meetings. These forms aren’t common, but three Parliament officials with knowledge of the international trade committee, granted anonymity to speak about confidential procedures, said that they had signed similar documents in the past. 

In the COVI meetings, the attendees — which included committee chair Van Brempt, the committee’s coordinators from the Parliament’s political groups, and group assistants — were not given access to the amended written contract itself. Instead, they were verbally briefed on details, including ones that hadn’t been shared with the public, one of the meeting participants granted anonymity above explained.

These included the new vaccine quantities in the amended deal — which the meeting participant said had been whittled down from 450 million vaccine doses due to be delivered this year to 260 million doses spread out over the course of four years. POLITICO hasn’t been able to confirm this figure.

In remarks relayed by her office in response to a request for comment by POLITICO, Van Brempt, who is from the S&D, said that the fact HERA was willing to update MEPs on the state of negotiations was a positive. She added, however, that “this does not resolve the broader issue of lack of transparency for the broader public for the contracts between the EU and vaccine producers.”

References to transparency in the committee’s final report have been watered down, perhaps driven by the need to not give more ammunition to the far-right groups that were pushing hard on the issue of the vaccine negotiations.

Instead, the report, which passed in the committee vote, “regrets the lack of transparency” during the negotiations, but says it was, “partly justified by respect for the right to confidentiality.”

And gone is the call for the full and unredacted contracts to be made public. 

The report says that MEPs should be given non-redacted versions of the contracts “without any further delay.” But for the general public, the call is for it to happen “when legally possible.”

It will now be up the full European Parliament to vote on the COVI report, probably in July, marking a somewhat anticlimactic end for the committee.

Source : Politico

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