According to a new report, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has violated EU protocol. By personally negotiating the bloc’s largest contract for COVID-19 vaccines (1.8 billion doses) with BioNTech-Pfizer, she shut out the joint team which had been involved in previous vaccine purchases.
Drawn up by the European Court of Auditors and published on September 12th, the report states that its requests for clarifications have thus far remained unanswered. “We have not received anything,” the Court notes. The contract in question, which was signed in May 2021, marked a peculiar departure from how earlier ones had been arranged. These vaccine deals, which the EU struck between 2020 and 2021, had included the aforementioned joint team—which comprises officials from the Commission and seven member countries—in their exploratory talks.
The implications are nothing short of alarming. BioNTech-Pfizer, by virtue of this mammoth contract (costing tens of billions of euros of taxpayer money), will now supply most of the EU’s COVID-19 vaccines in 2022 and 2023, raising questions over the scientific basis—and under what conditions—the contract was ultimately approved. Interestingly, even without the joint teams’ input, the report concludes, the purchase was approved by all EU countries anyway.
It is not the first time that von der Leyen fell under an EU body’s scrutiny. In late January this year, the European Ombudsman launched an investigation to ascertain the official’s role in negotiations with the U.S. pharmaceutical titan. Subsequently, the Commission failed to fulfill the Ombudsman’s request to ask von der Leyen’s office for the private messages she had sent to Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla. Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly went on to denigrate her leadership as ‘maladministration.’
These criticisms towards von der Leyen are the only real negative that the Court observed in its assessment of the EU’s vaccine strategy since 2020. On the whole, it found that the “EU’s preparations for the procurement of COVID-19 vaccines were mostly effective.” Although the UK and the U.S. were slightly faster, the EU quickly caught up. In addition, the EU had contracts with more producers for larger quantities, it says.
Von der Leyen is due to hold her annual State of the Union address on Wednesday, September 14th.