On Friday, the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (“EPPO”) confirmed it has an ongoing investigation into the acquisition of Covid vaccines in the European Union. The EPPO is tasked with investigating and prosecuting economic crimes against the financial interests of the European Union (“EU”)
“This exceptional confirmation comes after the extremely high public interest. No further details will be made public at this stage,” the EPPO tweeted.
This comes after renewed calls last Tuesday for the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, to resign. Four Members of the European Parliament (“MEPs”) held a press conference to expose what happened during the second session of the European Parliament’s special committee on Covid-19 (“COVI”) on 10 October which put questions to Pfizer’s representative Janine Small.
In April 2021, The New York Times reported that it was von der Leyen who had concluded the huge vaccine contract with Pfizer/BioNTech. She personally took care of signing the contract during negotiations with Pfizer’s CEO, Albert Bourla. The deal to lock in 1.8 billion doses established the European Union as Pfizer’s biggest single client by far.
“For a month, von der Leyen had been exchanging texts and calls with Albert Bourla, the chief executive of Pfizer, another vaccine supplier to the bloc. And as they spoke, two things became clear: Pfizer might have more doses it could offer the bloc — many more. And the European Union would be thrilled to have them,” The New York Times wrote.
Details had been discussed by telephone and text messages. In May 2021, netzpolitik.org journalist Alexander Fanta submitted a Freedom of Information request to obtain copies of von der Leyen’s messages with Bourla. The European Commission Secretary-General responded: “No documents could be found that fell within the scope of your request.”
The Commission’s refusal to grant access to these communications prompted the EU ombudsman Emily O’Reilly to criticise how the commission handled this Freedom of Information request. O’Reilly found that the commission staff had never explicitly asked the president’s office to look for the text messages and called on the EU executive to do a more exhaustive search. The Commission said that it was unable to find such messages: “The Commission can confirm that the search undertaken by the President’s cabinet for relevant text messages corresponding to the request for access to documents has not yielded any results,” the EU transparency commissioner Vera Jourova said in a letter to the ombudsman.
As reported by Investigate Europe in September 2021, according to a report prepared by the People’s Vaccine Alliance, the EU may have overpaid €31 billion for doses. This assessment rests on a study by Imperial College London showing that mRNA injections could be mass-produced for as little as $1.18 to $2.85. The markup for each shot would thus be over 794% for Moderna and over 1,838% for Pfizer.
The lack of transparency surrounding these texts has triggered outrage among MEPs and civil society organisations who criticised the commission for using tricks to avoid accountability. During a press conference calling for von der Leyen’s resignation in February, MEP Cristian Terhes said:
“Is this the Europe we want? A Europe where the President of the Commission personally negotiates with the head of a private company on something that affects our fundamental rights? We should … have access to these documents. It should have been her [to be] the first one disclosing this information to us MEPs and us journalists and everybody living in the European Union because we are all affected by these decisions. And that did not happen.”
Belgian socialist MEP Kathleen van Brempt, who chairs COVI, deemed the Commission’s response as “unacceptable”. “The complete lack of transparency benefits the industry, not the European citizens,” she tweeted. Van Brempt told Politico that the lack of transparency further reinforces the view that the EU is in the pocket of multinational companies.
(Read more: EU Commission says it cannot find messages with Pfizer CEO, EU Observer, 29 June 2022 and Serious corruption scandal around Ursula von der Leyen, Les Observateurs, 11 October 2022)
Retweeting the EPPO’s tweet on Friday confirming their ongoing investigation, van Brempt tweeted:
“The COVI committee will be following this case with great attention. Several aspects of the 3rd Pfizer contract deserve looking into, the text messages between the Commission President and the fact that there is no paper trail of the preliminary negotiations in first instance.
“We need to know why the biggest contract is the least transparent. We need to understand why the EU is obliged to buy 1.8 billion Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines, regardless of the needs, regardless of whether new and better players have entered the market.
“Many EU contracts reserved a “right” to buy but with the Pfizer contract, we do have an “obligation” to buy. Why did we deviate from the normal procedure for a contract that covers our needs many times, for a period where all would already be vaccinated (2022 and 2023).”
Retweeting van Brempt’s tweet, Terhes said: “Kathleen van Brempt just pointed out some BIG problems related to von der Leyen and Pfizer … EU Commission is corrupt #UrsulaMustResign.”