The European Commission is keeping details on the the EU’s biggest COVID-19 vaccine deal close to the vest, according to a new report. (richterfoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus)
The European Court of Auditors wants to know how the bloc clinched its biggest COVID-19 vaccine contract—and whether there was anything untoward in text messages between European Commission (EC) President Ursula von der Leyen and Pfizer chief Albert Bourla. So far, however, the EU budget watchdog’s probe has been met with silence.
In a report issued Wednesday, the Court of Auditors said it had asked the Commission for details on the preliminary negotiations around Europe’s third vaccine contract with Pfizer for its BioNTech-partnered mRNA shot Comirnaty.
That deal, which was signed last May, covered an initial 900 million doses for delivery in 2022 and 2023, with the option for the EC to order another 900 million doses in the future.
“It is the biggest COVID-19 vaccine contract signed by the Commission and will dominate the EU’s vaccine portfolio until the end of 2023,” the Court of Auditors noted.
Despite the request for detail on aspects of the deal like scientific expert advice, discussion records and term agreements, “none was forthcoming,” the watchdog said in its report.
“This comes up almost never. It’s not a situation that we at the court normally face,” an unnamed senior auditor who helped lead the investigation told Politico.
Last March, EC’s Vaccine Steering Board—comprising representatives from 27 EU member states—agreed to plan a meeting with the Union and “national scientific advisors” to hash out the bloc’s 2022 vaccine strategy. But “[s]uch a meeting never took place,” the watchdog’s report contends.
At the same time, EC President von der Leyen held early talks for a deal with Pfizer/BioNTech. The deal represents “the only contract for which the [joint negotiation team] was not involved in this stage of negotiations, contrary to the Commission decision on procuring COVID-19 vaccines,” the Audit Court said.
The 1.8 million-dose Pfizer contract was significant for both its volume and its price, Politico reports. While Europe originally secured vaccines at a price of 15.50 euros (or about $18.90) per dose, the sticker would ultimately increase to 19.50 euros, the Financial Times previously reported. That, in turn, would make the deal worth some €35 billion if fully exercised.
The size of the order at a time when many Europeans had already been vaccinated also proved an issue, with some Eastern European countries complaining earlier this year they’d been locked into buying too many doses.
Meanwhile, on the issue of von der Leyen and Bourla’s texts, the auditors’ report urges EC to search for once again “relevant text messages” and “assess whether public access can be granted to them.” The report points out that Europe’s ombudsman Emily O’Reilly opened a case into the matter last September after the Commission refused to grant public access to the texts.
Earlier this year, a report from O’Reilly found that “the way the Commission dealt with this request constituted maladministration,” the Court of Auditors noted.
In April 2021, The New York Times broke the news that EC’s von der Leyen and Pfizer’s Bourla had been texting in the lead-up to the bloc’s massive vaccine purchase agreement. The alleged talks came at a time of intense pressure for Europe, whose COVID-19 vaccinations had lagged the United States and the United Kingdom after the EU’s then-biggest supplier, AstraZeneca, unveiled production problems.
The continued scrutiny comes after mRNA shots from both Pfizer and Moderna suffered reported demand slumps and delivery adjustments earlier this year. Back in May, Pfizer and BioNTech said they would push back European Comirnaty deliveries scheduled for June through August by three months. The unspecified number of doses is now set to arrive from September through the end of the fourth quarter.
The delivery delay was part of a bid to clear the way for variant-adapted vaccines this fall and winter, EC said at the time. This month, Pfizer and BioNTech snagged European authorization for a pair of updated shots against omicron.
And Moderna in June struck a deal with European officials amending an original supply agreement to push delivery of boosters scheduled for the second quarter into later 2022 or early 2023. Like the Pfizer maneuver, the modified Moderna pact also covers boosters and vaccines that target specific variants.