Brussels (Brussels Morning): The latest episode in the saga surrounding the European Commission’s contracts on options for large-scale vaccine purchases took place Wednesday when Commission President Ursula von der Leyen met with the Green parliamentarians.
“It was a big mistake to accept the dictates of the big pharmaceutical companies”, Belgian MEP Philippe Lamberts with the Greens declared. He still favours a common European approach but wants the contracts to be given publicity. So far, limited access has been given to two of the contracts with pharmaceutical companies, yet, despite requests, not even MEPs have been granted full access to terms of the contract deals. Commission officials cite commercial interests and confidentiality clauses as their reason for repeatedly refusing to disclose further details.
Big Pharma dictates confidentiality
Confidentiality clauses were a prerequisite for concluding the contracts, according to Commission spokesperson, Eric Mamer.
“It is not a surprise that the Commission did not fight hard on that. It is in their DNA to think that what is big for business is good for the EU,” Philippe Lamberts complained after the politicians met with Ms von der Leyen online.
“But in this case the customers are the European public and as it is, neither citizens nor elected representatives have access to these contracts.”
He denounced the lack of democratic oversight. but stressed that the communitarian approach by the Commission on centralising the vaccine procurement was the right thing to do.
“It is not right to keep secrets. The controversy over the Astra Zeneca agreement shows that the lack of transparency of these contracts is against the general interest. They don’t have to disclose the formula for making the vaccines, but the sales contracts, for that there is no excuse,” Lamberts observed.
Still unconfirmed are the price the Commission has agreed to pay for the vaccines, the most expensive of which are the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna for €12 and €14 per dose respectively. According to information leaked last year, the Astra Zeneca vaccine would be available for only €1.78 per dose. The freedom of access to information requests filed with the Commission are likely to be denied in procedures involving both the European Ombudsman and later on the European Court of Justice.
Last week in response to the vaccine EU shortage, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that the EU would trigger the article in the withdrawal agreement with the UK that allows blocking exports to Northern Ireland to retain vaccines within the EU. The move unleashed a storm of criticism and the Commission backed down, admitting it was a mis-hap.
“Breaching the withdrawal agreement was a mistake and that threat should not have been made,” Lamberts pointed out.
Still, the Greens would not challenge von der Leyen’s position, even though she is being criticised by her own Conservative party members in the German Bundestag. The Commission can only be ousted by a motion of censure supported by two thirds of the MEPs, something that has occurred only once in the EU’s history when a threatened no-confidence vote brought down the Santer Commission in the late 1990s because of internal maladministration.
Delivering on commitments
MEPs who have been urging the Commission for explanations insist on commitments being fulfilled. At this stage, it is not a question of further EU funding to address the bottlenecks in production. Pfizer-BioNTech has promised to send up to 75 million extra doses to the EU in the spring.
“Now it is a question of ramping up capacity and security of supply in terms of the physical and logistical capacity,” Lamberts explained.
Towards the end of last year, the Commission was counting on orders of up to 2.3 billion vaccine doses with six producers, while insisting that some of the production at least be within the EU. However, the pharmaceutical companies have referred to the EU vaccine contracts as expressing intent rather than being binding commitments for deliveries. The British-Swedish company Astra Zeneca having blamed delays on its continental European supplier in Seneffe, Belgium, triggered an inspection of the plant by the Belgian health authorities last week. Astra Zeneca’s delivery schedule has been halved to 40 million doses by the end of March, instead of 80 million as intended.
“It seems Astra Zeneca had signed with others countries before the EU. When they signed with the EU, they could have said that it was too late,” Philippe Lamberts commented.
The Commission believes production will pick up in February. Also the Russian and the Chinese vaccines could enter the EU market, pending approval by the European Medicines Agency.
Risk of injury
Another controversy on the rise is the risk of side-effects, injury and adverse reactions to the vaccines. The Greens are calling for the pharmaceutical industry to deposit money into a fund to deal with the fallout. Previously the public health system has been required to take on the cost of injury, as happened with the swine flu vaccine that triggered neurological conditions and epilepsy among children, following the vaccination campaign in 2009.
“We are privatising profits and socialising losses,” Lamberts exclaimed. “This outsourcing of risk is not acceptable.”
In making her round of apologies in the European Parliament’s political circles, Commission President von der Leyen excluded both the Conservatives’ ECR and the Left, both of which have been demanding public scrutiny of the contracts signed with pharmaceutical companies as well as the setting up of a special committee to investigate the vaccine fiasco.
Next week, the vaccine saga is set to continue at the European Parliament plenary session.