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This Op-ed was first published on EU Observer in a shortened version.
One of the European Parliament’s key tasks is budgetary control: scrutinising if billions of taxpayers’ money are spent in a proper and useful way. But in case of the EU’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the tens of billions of euros the EU spends on purchasing vaccines from powerful pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer, it has renounced this task. The victims of this are EU tax payers and people in the global South.
From recent letters seen by CEO, it seems the European Parliament president Alberta Metsola prevented her own institution doing its work by denying MEPs access to crucial information. This adds to the culture of secrecy installed by Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen and her refusal to be transparent and be held accountable by the special COVI-committee that was created on 10 March last year.
COVI’s mission was to examine the EU's response to the pandemic and identifying lessons to be drawn to be better prepared for future health crises. During the COVI meetings, the debate on how to improve transparency was omnipresent. On 12 July the EP plenary voted on the final COVI-report.
From the very start, COVI asked the European Commission to get full access for its members to the non-redacted contracts the EU signed with pharma. The European Commission dragged its feet over the whole year.
The COVI-coordinators on 13 July last year requested an extended access to the contracts, also for MEP assistants, political advisors and the secretariat. Metsola forwarded this request in a letter dated 16 September to Von der Leyen. What happened after is not entirely clear. But what is clear from correspondence is that Metsola did in the following months not follow the demands of COVI but struck a deal with Von der Leyen instead.
On 15 November 2022, COVI-chair Kathleen van Brempt (S&D) again wrote a letter to the ‘Classified Information Unit’ of the European Parliament (EP) requesting access to the negotiation files and the contracts, which the EP had already received in autumn 2021. The non-redacted vaccine contracts were then accessible in a secret reading room (with confidentiality restrictions) for a selected and unofficial group of MEPs: the Vaccine Contact Group.
The arm-wrestling on democratic needed access to crucial information continued till the very last moment.
In the very last phase of negotiations by MEPs on their report, the COVI-secretariat suddenly received a questionnaire sent by HERA (Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority, the newly created EC agency) with the accompanying message that ‘answers to these questions could accelerate the handling of the access request from COVI to the contracts’.
It raised some eyebrows, not only because of the lousy timing, but because the questionnaire was written by...Pfizer. The pharmaceutical company largely wanted to know from MEPs why they wanted information from non-redacted contracts including information on issues as liability and pricing, and what they would do with it.
It’s a clear cut manifestation of what we at CEO call ‘corporate capture’ when a pharmaceutical giant wants MEPs to justify and explain why they need commercially protected information, to do their work in the general interest.
After answers were sent, on 31 May this year, the very last day that COVI negotiators were discussing their final report, Von der Leyen writes to Metsola that the COVID-19 contracts will be made available “according to your request”. Meaning that the information is only accessible to ... the Vaccine Contact Group. The same day a few of these MEPs also received a secretive briefing on this procedure and the latest vaccine deal struck by the European Commission and Pfizer, worth billions. Disclosure not allowed.
The draft report voted by COVI 12 June has– under center-right pressure – rather vague language on transparency. Days before civil society organisations expressed to several MEPs their “concern” about the “compromise language” in the report: “Calls on the Commission to publish the non-redacted version of the purchase agreements for the general public after their respective termination dates, including all information of public interest, when legally possible".
It’s crystal clear that "when legally possible" would preclude any disclosure of all Covid-19 contracts, which all contain a confidentiality clause. It means that the European Parliament report basically sticks to the current status quo, and that once again, private interests are placed above the public's right to know. Without full disclosure of all past and future purchase agreements, the European Parliament cannot hold the Commission to account.
Now it seems that was precisely what EPP-leaders intended.
In the meantime the EP itself seems to evolve a bit like in George Orwell’s famous book Animal Farm: all MEPs are equal, but some MEPs are more equal than others.
Over the past two years Corporate Europe Observatory has published extensive research showing that the EU response to the pandemic was heavily influenced by the commercial interests of Big Pharma. At the same time, in our 25 years of making Freedom of Information requests, CEO has rarely seen such a level of opacity.
MEP Michèle Rivasi (Greens) and co-chair of COVI rightfully states that the lack of accountability is fertile ground for extreme-right and populists in the European election year.
In the context of major upcoming legislative change, COVI’s work would have been a chance to re-balance power between Big Pharma interests and public interests. But in the aftermath of the pandemic, it seems center-right politicians are fine with keeping the steering wheel of public health policy in the hands of companies like Pfizer.
The issue with this is that it’s all about equity. While people in Europe are all happy to forget about the pandemic and enjoy freedom, it’s predictable that when the next pandemic will hit, all the issues around access to medicines and therapeutics will be front stage again. This time with an even increased corproate capture of policies by Big Pharma.
In a recent article published on Social Europe, two experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) point out to the latest annual update on global immunisation coverage by the a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
According to the experts this ‘shows that some recovery has been achieved from the backsliding trend in childhood and adolescent immunisation that happened during the pandemic. But challenges ahead are certain. One of those is timely, affordable and sustainable access to vaccine supply’.
They quote an open letter on access to vaccines, tests and treatments, published in March, in which hundreds of global leaders called on governments ‘never again to allow profiteering to come before the needs of humanity’. Indeed 2021 saw a preventable death from Covid-19 every 24 seconds, when vaccines were not targeted to those who needed them most.
This is in stark contrast with the fact the EU-member states are currently throwing away doses of Covid vaccines at an incredible costs for tax payers. Politico recently revealed that Germany ‘has thrown out 83 million doses of coronavirus vaccines at a rough cost of €1.6 billion and has 120 million more doses sitting unused in stock, even as it is set to receive more jabs at a time when vaccination has flatlined’. If these additional 120 million doses would be trashed, it would according to Politico put ‘the total value of the unused vaccines at roughly €4 billion based on leaked prices of €19 ($20.90) per dose for Novavax, €23 ($25.50) for Moderna and €19.50 for BioNTech/Pfizer’.
Groups like Global justice Now have accused Pfizer of ‘pandemic profiteering’, making revenues of 80 billion $ in 2021 and 100 billion $ in 2022. But it is EU politicians – EC-president Ursula Von der Leyen in the first place - not willing to be held accountable that allow this pandemic profiteering.
The two WHO-experts rightfully conclude that equitable access to medicines can be achieved ‘when citizens and governments work together and hold the reins. The future should not come down to a plea for better intentions from industry, donors and philanthropists: we need to shape it ourselves’.