EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides insisted EU executive chief Ursula von der Leyen did not have any role whatsoever in negotiating COVID vaccine contracts, during a heated hearing before the European Parliament’s Special Committee on COVID-19 (COVI) on Monday (27 March).
Following revelations by the New York Times in April 2021, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla came under suspicion of having directly negotiated a €1.8 billion contract extension for additional doses to EU countries via text messages.
“The Commission president was not involved in any COVID vaccine contract negotiations. I have said this before and I will say it again,” Kyriakides told MEPs when questioned about the transparency of these talks.
The Health Commissioner reiterated that all COVID vaccines contract, with Pfizer or other manufacturers, had gone through what is set up in the legislative process. “There was a joint negotiating team and a steering committee,” she said.
The steering committee is responsible for granting a negotiating mandate to the negotiating team, which is composed of representatives of both the Commission and the member states.
“The Member States have always had the possibility of rejecting a contract […] They were perfectly aware of the conditions of the contracts,” the Commissioner said.
After signing the deal, both Pfizer and the European Commission have justified the lack of transparency on contracts – which were provided to lawmakers only at a later stage with extensive redacted parts – by confidentiality clauses.
Several MEPs, including the COVI chair, the socialist Kathleen Van Brempt, insisted that lawmakers should be able to see all contracts signed without redactions.
“We have done our best to keep MEPs informed while taking into account contractual obligations,” Kyriakides said, acknowledging, however, that Commission’s answers to lawmakers have not been ‘fully satisfying’ due to secrecy clauses in the contracts.
In 2020, the European Commission ordered doses of vaccine against the COVID-19 virus on behalf of the member states. Several vaccine manufacturers, including Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna, Novavax, and Sanofi have signed contracts with the Commission.
To date, thanks to grouped purchases of vaccines, 70% of the European population is vaccinated, said Kyriakides.
Among these contracts, MEPs were particularly interested in the third and largest contract signed between the Commission and the American giant Pfizer, in partnership with the German laboratory BioNTech.
When journalist Alexander Fanta of the news website netzpolitik.org asked for access to the text messages revealed by the NY Times, the Commission replied that it had not ‘identified’ them and that it could no longer find them.
These statements by the Commission led to a complaint by European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly in January 2022, who called the EU executive to order and urged the Commission to “conduct a more thorough search for relevant messages.”
Invited twice to explain himself to the members of the COVI Commission, Albert Bourla never showed up.
Back in January, Pfizer’s representatives had faced the risk of exclusion from the European Parliament, before the Conference of Presidents of the Parliament’s political groups voted against the request by COVI MEPs.
On March 6, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola sent a letter to von der Leyen requesting access to the contracts in a secure room for MEPs.
“We are doing everything possible to ensure that you get a response to Roberta Metsola’s letter,” replied Stella Kyriakides.
[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/Nathalie Weatherald]