Pressure Rises on Von Der Leyen as Pfizer CEO Backs Out of Testifying to EU Parliament Covid Panel

“After von der Leyen’s silence, Bourla had the opportunity to set the record straight in the European Parliament, but he preferred to slip away. Why all these secrets? What do they have to hide from European citizens?” 

After an audit report into the European Commission’s COVID-19 vaccine procurement strategy uncovered serious procedural violations, an assortment of Big Pharma big cheeses were invited to give testimony to a European Parliament hearing. They included Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla. His testimony, scheduled for October 10, was supposed to shed light on the furtive contacts he had shared with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during preliminary negotiations for what would eventually become the EU’s biggest vaccine contract ever (at least to date).

No Questions Answered

But as Politico reported last Thursday, Bourla has pulled out of attending the hearing, for unspecified reasons. This is the sort of thing big pharma CEOs can do these days without paying a price or even attracting negative media attention — or in this case, any mainstream media attention beyond the Politico article. It is not enough that Bourla’s company enjoys immunity from liability (except for wilful misconduct) for the billions of vaccines it produced; Bourla apparently considers himself immune from having to defend those vaccines at potentially hostile public fora.

As the Politico article notes, Bourla was expected to face tough questioning over the secret vaccine deals he personally struck with von der Leyen (whose triple-barrelled surname will, for the sake of time, space and convenience, hereupon be abbreviated to VdL). That is something Bourla would rather avoid:

The head of the U.S. pharmaceutical giant, the largest supplier of COVID-19 vaccines to the EU, was scheduled to appear before the panel on October 10. The committee is meeting with key officials involved in the EU’s vaccine procurement process to draw lessons on how to respond to future pandemics. Other pharmaceutical executives have addressed the committee, including the CEO of Moderna and senior officials from AstraZeneca and Sanofi.

While it is true that the European Parliament does not have subpoena powers, particularly for non-EU citizens, Bourla’s backing out at the last minute is not a good look. At the very least, it reinforces the impression that Bourla and VdL have something important to hide from EU lawmakers and citizens.

Commission’s Biggest Procurement Deal Ever

One reason why this is important is that the purchase of COVID-19 vaccines for the entire 27-nation bloc was the European Commission’s biggest and most expensive procurement challenge ever, paid for entirely with public funds. And Pfizer was far and away the biggest provider of those vaccines, accounting for just over half of the 4.6 billion doses (the equivalent of 10 per EU citizen) procured from global pharmaceutical companies.

As a result of von der Leyen’s furtive communications with Pfizer, the Commission secured its third — and by far, largest — contract with Pfizer BioNTech. That contract allowed for the purchase of 900 million doses of the wild type vaccine and of a vaccine adapted to variants, as well as the option to purchase an additional 900 million doses. As the European Court of Auditors notes, it was “the biggest COVID-19 vaccine contract signed by the Commission and will dominate the EU’s vaccine portfolio until the end of 2023”.

Yet serious questions remain about how those vaccines were procured and under what conditions.

A recent report by the Court of Auditors into the EU’s vaccine procurement strategy found that VdL had directly participated in preliminary negotiations for the vaccine contract, which was concluded in May 2021. As Politico notes, “this was a departure from the negotiating procedure followed with other contracts, where a joint negotiating team made up of officials from the Commission and member countries conducted exploratory talks.”

Instead, von der Leyen conducted preliminary negotiations on her own, and presented the results to the steering board in April. A planned meeting of scientific advisers, organized to discuss the EU’s vaccine strategy for 2022, never took place. The VdL-headed Commission also refused to provide records of the discussions with Pfizer, either in the form of minutes, names of experts consulted, agreed terms, or other evidence.

“We asked the Commission to provide us with information on the preliminary negotiations for this agreement,” the report’s authors write. “However, none was forthcoming.”

VdL is also in hot water due to her refusal to disclose the content of her text messages with Bourla, despite repeated requests from MEPs and the EU’s ombudsman Emily O’Reilly.  When O’Reilly urged the Commission to undertake a more thorough search for the text messages in question, the Commission played for time before finally declaring that it cannot and does not need to find the text messages.

“Due to their short-lived and ephemeral nature,” text messages “in general do not contain important information relating to policies, activities and decisions of the Commission,” wrote European Vice Commissioner for Values and Transparency Vera Jourová.

What is perhaps most concerning is the glaring disregard the VdL-led Commission appears to hold even for its own basic standards of transparency and accountability. And that is entirely at odds with VdL’s public stance. In her Political Guidelines, VdL states that if “Europeans are to have faith in our Union, its institutions should be open and beyond reproach on ethics, transparency and integrity.” Yet when the Court of Auditors asked the Commission for information about the preliminary negotiations, they were snubbed.

“No information was transmitted,” the inspectors told the Berliner Morgenpost. Internally, the inspectors are stunned: “This behavior is highly unusual, it has never happened before”.

Given all of this and extrapolating from VdL’s own words, Europeans are quite right to be losing faith in the EU…

Read the full article on Naked Capitalism

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