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Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla and Europe’s leaders negotiated a vaccine megadeal by private text. Now those messages may come out

January 28, 2022, 12:02 PM UTC

What was said in conversations between Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla and Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, early last year when the EU was scrambling to secure vaccine supplies? That’s the central question in what is becoming a significant political scandal in Brussels.

On Friday, the woman charged with overseeing EU institutions—European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly—said the Commission was guilty of “maladministration” over the way it fobbed off a journalist who wanted to know the contents of text messages between Bourla and von der Leyen last February.

Von der Leyen and Bourla themselves had revealed the texts’ existence in an April 2021 New York Times piece about the “personal diplomacy” that helped the EU move past a dismal start to its vaccination campaign. The resulting deal, for 1.8 billion doses, was five times as big as Pfizer’s agreement with the U.S. at the time. According to Bourla, the two had “developed a deep trust, because we got into deep discussions.”

To find out what those deep discussions entailed, Alexander Fanta, a writer for German outlet Netzpolitik, requested public access to the texts and any other related documents. The Commission released a few documents (including a press release) but refused to hand over the text messages, claiming there was no record of them.

‘This falls short’

After Fanta complained to O’Reilly, she discovered that the Commission had never asked von der Leyen’s cabinet for the texts, on the basis that such messages don’t fall under the Commission’s criteria for keeping records. Under these criteria, texts are “short-lived and informal” and therefore cannot qualify as a record.

The ombudsman was not impressed, pointing out on Friday that “when it comes to the right of public access to EU documents, it is the content of the document that matters and not the device or form.

“The narrow way in which this public access request was treated meant that no attempt was made to identify if any text messages existed. This falls short of reasonable expectations of transparency and administrative standards in the Commission,” O’Reilly said. “Not all text messages need to be recorded, but text messages clearly do fall under the EU transparency law, and so relevant text messages should be recorded. It is not credible to claim otherwise.”

She has now told the Commission to ask von der Leyen’s office for the texts, and if it finds them to then properly assess whether they should be released. The Commission said it will respond within her April 26 deadline.

The Commission has in the past couple of years already been heavily criticized for the secrecy surrounding its negotiations with vaccine makers. And this is not von der Leyen’s first rodeo with scandals relating to procurement matters and missing phone contents.

When she became Commission president in late 2019, she did so under the cloud of a German parliamentary investigation over contracts awarded during her previous tenure as the country’s defense minister. Von der Leyen was ultimately cleared in that inquiry, but not before it emerged that not one but two of her phones, which could have provided crucial evidence, had been wiped.

Pfizer had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication. The U.S. company, which codeveloped its COVID vaccine with Germany’s BioNTech, estimated in November that the jab will have brought in $36 billion in 2021 revenue, with another $29 billion following this year.

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