EU Ombudsman starts inquiry on opaque handling by Commission of Covid-19 vaccine-contracts
The European Ombudsman has today started investigating the European Commission's secrecy around its Covid-19 vaccine contracts with pharmaceutical companies and the negotiations that shaped these contracts . This inquiry was sparked by complaints filed by Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) earlier this month against the Commission's handling of two September 2020 Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. The Ombudsman has already contacted the Commission and asked for a response before 11 February.
The Ombudsman's inquiry covers two CEO complaints :
1. A complaint against the Commission denying access to its Covid-19 vaccine contract with AstraZeneca, the first contract which the Commission signed last year. The Commission rejected our FOI request for disclosure of the contract, with reference to protecting the commercial interests of AstraZeneca and claiming there was no overriding public interest in transparency. Corporate Europe Observatory appealed this decision, but the Commission has failed to respond within the deadlines defined in the EU FOI legislation.
2. The Commission's refusal to disclose documents related to the vaccine negotiations, including notes of meetings and correspondence as well as the names of the members of the Joint Negotiation Team, which consists of seven experts designated by member states.
After months of growing pressure from MEPs  and civil society , the Commission has recently taken some first steps to improve transparency, but these have been shown to be haphazard and insufficient.
Earlier this month, the Commission invited MEPs to read a redacted version of the CureVac contract under strict conditions in a reading room. Surprisingly the Commission posted the redacted CureVac contract on its website earlier this week . The five other contracts remain confidential, with neither MEPs nor the general public having any access to the texts. The CureVac contract shows that confidentiality was written into the contracts, giving the pharma companies a veto right (see article 11.6.1 onward). The contract also confirms fears that the lucrative advance purchase agreement (APAs) deals being negotiated in the dark would use public money to remove financial risk and liability from pharma companies developing Covid-19 vaccines.
All of this is without corresponding public interest conditions related to prices and availability, and despite the €2.8 billion public money already spent by the Commission on the development and advance purchase agreements for these vaccines.
The contract shows that the EU has gone very far in 'de-risking' Curevac's investments, but still failed to secure any rights in Curevac inventions or know-how funded under the contract . Moreover, the contract indicates that EU governments, in specific scenarios, could end up paying indemnity for possible side-effects of the vaccine, but key parts of the text regarding this indemnity have been redacted.
Regarding the alarming message by World Health Organisation Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Monday on the "catastrophic moral failure" over vaccine distribution , it is shocking to learn that the doses bought by the EU cannot be passed on to low- and middle income countries without permission from CureVac.
The opaqueness of the vaccines negotiations risk expanding the corporate capture by Big Pharma of EU medicines policies. In September 2020 research by Corporate Europe Observatory  revealed how pharma industry lobbying was putting profit before an effective pandemic response. The research showed how Big Pharma, despite lofty PR statements about their commitment to tackling the coronavirus pandemic, is lobbying intensively to protect its problematic, profit-maximising business-model, partly based on public money with no strings attached and excessive monopoly patent rules.
Olivier Hoedeman, researcher at Corporate Europe Observatory, said: "Four months ago we submitted FOI requests to throw light on the EU's Covid-19 vaccine deal negotiations with Big Pharma, but instead of transparency, the European Commission chose delay tactics and secrecy. Transparency is crucial for informed public debate, democratic accountability, and public trust. The Ombudsman's investigation is great news and will hopefully result in a much-needed breakthrough."
Viviana Galli, Coordinator at European Alliance for Responsible R&D and Affordable Medicines, said: "The lack of transparency undermines trust in the institutions and science, which is fundamental in current times. Secrecy and the need to ask private companies for disclosure authorisation are unjustified where considerable amounts of public funds have been invested in research and development and used to conclude these deals. Exchanges with companies and the contracts should be disclosed in their entirety for public scrutiny and to ensure that the public interest has been protected."
Yannis Natsis, Policy Manager for Universal Access & Affordable Medicines, European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) said: "European governments and the Commission must stop beating around the bush and publish all contracts and exchanges with companies as soon as possible. The success story of the EU Covid-19 vaccines procurement strategy is seriously undermined by the secrecy imposed by pharma companies and condoned by the EU and its members. The Ombudsman's inquiry proves that the demand for public accountability is only getting louder and stronger."
Notes to editors:
1: The Ombudsman's letter announcing the inquiry is online here: https://corporateeurope.org/sites/default/files/2021-01/INFO_202100085_20210122_090103.pdf
The Ombudsman's letter to the Commission is online here: https://www.ombudsman.europa.eu/en/correspondence/en/137152
2: Our access to documents request titled "COVID-19 Advance Purchase Agreements (vaccine deal contracts)" is online here: https://www.asktheeu.org/en/request/covid_19_advance_purchase_agreem
Our access to documents request titled "The Vaccines Procurement Steering Committee & the Joint Negotiation Team" is online here: https://www.asktheeu.org/en/request/the_vaccines_procurement_steerin#incoming-29569
6: See for instance the analysis by Knowledge Ecology International: https://www.keionline.org/35079
7: WHO chief warns of 'catastrophic moral failure' over vaccine distribution: https://www.who.int/director-general/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-148th-session-of-the-executive-board