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EU Policy. How the love story between von der Leyen and Pfizer turned sour

A series of unfortunate events that have turned a European success story into an embarrassment left unmentioned in von der Leyen’s race to be re-appointed as Commission chief.
A series of unfortunate events that have turned a European success story into an embarrassment left unmentioned in von der Leyen’s race to be re-appointed as Commission chief. Copyright Jennifer Jacquemart/CCE
Copyright Jennifer Jacquemart/CCE
By Gerardo FortunaMarta Iraola Iribarren
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From making her Europe’s vaccine saviour to becoming a skeleton in her closet: All the ebbs and flows in the love story between Ursula von der Leyen and big pharma Pfizer.

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The Belgian tribunal of Liège has delayed until December deciding whether it or the EU’s Prosecutor Office (EPPO) has competence to consider whether there was any wrongdoing committed by the European Commission in negotiating COVID-19 vaccines with Pfizer.

Following a criminal complaint filed by an individual, the Belgian authorities initiated the case in early 2023. Subsequently, the governments of Hungary and Poland joined the lawsuit.

While the Belgian judge claims the alleged offences have happened in the territory of their competencies, the EPPO wants to take the case on, since under EU law, the body is meant to investigate, prosecute, and bring to judgment perpetrators of criminal offences damaging the EU budget.

This latest development adds to a series of unfortunate events that have turned a European success story into an embarrassment left unmentioned in von der Leyen’s race to be re-appointed at the helm of the EU executive.

So-called 'Pfizer-gate' has all the elements of a love story: early romance, suspicion over secret texts, denials, and finally the stage where the former lovers prefer not to talk about it at all.

Euronews catalogues the ups and downs of the relationship.

Honeymoon

It was love at first sight. The COVID-19 vaccine developed by BioNTech and Pfizer was the first to receive EU authorisation back in December 2020, but an advance purchase agreement had been signed a month earlier for an initial batch of 200 million doses.

Pfizer offered a shoulder to cry on at a delicate moment for Europe when the other main vaccine manufacturer AstraZeneca was struggling to commit to its contractual agreements – amid suspicions it was prioritising deliveries to the UK.

Negotiating purchases on behalf of member states, von der Leyen found in Pfizer everything AstraZeneca was unable to offer in terms of trust and reliability.

Further contracts with Pfizer swiftly followed, in March and May 2021, securing in total €2.4 bn's worth of vaccine doses, with an option to purchase an additional 900 million doses – a major route to exit the pandemic.

All was going smoothly, indeed in April 2021 von der Leyen even went to visit Pfizer’s manufacturing ‘home’, in Puurs, Belgium, from where she heralded the target to vaccinate most of Europe’s adult population by the end of that Summer.

But the blossoming romance was about to take a bad turn.

Texts and suspicion

The turning point came with a New York Times report in April 2021 on calls made and text messages exchanged between von der Leyen and Pfizer’s CEO Albert Bourla through which both parties negotiated vaccine contracts – a deal where “personal diplomacy played a big role”, according to the outlet.

Subsequently another journalist, Alexander Fanta, filed a request with the Commission seeking access to the content of these text messages. “No documents falling within the scope of [the] request could be identified,” the EU executive tersely replied.

For the Commission, the ephemeral nature of text messaging means these do not usually qualify as documents requiring registration, since they usually don't carry policies, activities and decisions of the institution.

The Commission's reply triggered an investigation by the European Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, who in January 2022 found maladministration in the handling of Fanta's request.

“No attempt was made to identify if any text messages existed,” the Ombudsman said, adding: “This falls short of reasonable expectations of transparency and administrative standards in the Commission."

In January 2023, The New York Times decided to take the Commission to European Court of Justice after they failed to provide them with the texts.

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On 10 November 2021, Ursula von der Leyen received an award in Washington from Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla for her commitment to maintaining transatlantic ties.
On 10 November 2021, Ursula von der Leyen received an award in Washington from Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla for her commitment to maintaining transatlantic ties.Roberto SCHMIDT/EU

Betrayal and ire

Meanwhile the European Parliament was increasingly irked by its role as the gooseberry in the von der Leyen/Pfizer affair. MEPs sought clarification and transparency on the vaccine deals in more than 20 parliamentary questions filed with the Commission.

One such poser filed by MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld (The Netherlands/Renew) elicited a further response - from Commission vice-president for transparency Věra Jourová - citing the ephemeral nature of text messages.

The lack of information angered lawmakers, who became more incensed when Pfizer’s Bourla rejected two invitations from the Parliament’s special committee on COVID-19 (COVI) to discuss the issue.

These incidents led to MEPs calling to ban access to the Parliament to Pfizer’s representatives – a move ultimately rejected by the Parliament’s conference of presidents.

In March 2023, Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides appeared at the request of the COVI to participate in a heated exchange with MEPs, during which she insisted that “the Commission president was not involved in any COVID vaccine contract negotiations. I have said this before, and I will say it again.”

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Breakup or happily ever after?

Today, von der Leyen prefers not to discuss the Pfizer texts at all.

All the vaccine contracts were approved and signed by member states, not by the Commission, and the money came from the capitals rather than Brussels, the German Commission president said during the Maastricht debate with other Spitzenkandidaten earlier this month, when asked whether she regretted the way the EU executive had brokered the deal. She was notably silent on the negotiation process however.

Pfizer-gate is a rallying cry for the far-right campaign in the EU election campaign, although von der Leyen might be shielded, at least for the moment, as the two main ongoing legal proceedings related to it are effectively frozen, with no outcome expected before the poll in three weeks' time.

A ruling from the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the case brought by the New York Times was expected earlier this year. However, an ECJ source confirmed to Euronews that the case is still in progress and no ruling has been scheduled yet with no indication of when it could be expected.

The EU Prosecutor's Office (EPPO) also announced in October 2022 the start of an investigation into the acquisition of vaccines in the EU during the pandemic. Contacted by Euronews, the EPPO declined to comment on the state of the investigation, particularly on its timing "in order not to endanger the outcome of the investigation".

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The EPPO launched operations in June 2021 and by December 2023, it had filed 224 indictments with 225 dismissed cases, while there are currently 1,927 active investigations. Even on this front, the chances of an outcome in the next three weeks appear extremely slim.

We need to wait until after the EU elections to see if this love story will have a happy ending for von der Leyen.

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