“After von der Leyen’s silence, Bourla had the opportunity to set the record straight in the European Parliament, but he preferred to slip away. Why all these secrets? What do they have to hide from European citizens?” 

After an audit report into the European Commission’s COVID-19 vaccine procurement strategy uncovered serious procedural violations, an assortment of Big Pharma big cheeses were invited to give testimony to a European Parliament hearing. They included Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla. His testimony, scheduled for October 10, was supposed to shed light on the furtive contacts he had shared with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during preliminary negotiations for what would eventually become the EU’s biggest vaccine contract ever (at least to date).

No Questions Answered

But as Politico reported last Thursday, Bourla has pulled out of attending the hearing, for unspecified reasons. This is the sort of thing big pharma CEOs can do these days without paying a price or even attracting negative media attention — or in this case, any mainstream media attention beyond the Politico article. It is not enough that Bourla’s company enjoys immunity from liability (except for wilful misconduct) for the billions of vaccines it produced; Bourla apparently considers himself immune from having to even defend those vaccines at potentially hostile public hearings.

As the Politico article notes, Bourla was expected to face tough questioning over the secret vaccine deals he personally struck with von der Leyen (whose triple-barrelled surname will, for the sake of time, space and convenience, hereupon be abbreviated to VdL). That is presumably something Bourla would rather avoid:

The head of the U.S. pharmaceutical giant, the largest supplier of COVID-19 vaccines to the EU, was scheduled to appear before the panel on October 10. The committee is meeting with key officials involved in the EU’s vaccine procurement process to draw lessons on how to respond to future pandemics. Other pharmaceutical executives have addressed the committee, including the CEO of Moderna and senior officials from AstraZeneca and Sanofi.

While it is true that the European Parliament does not have subpoena powers, Bourla’s backing out at the last minute is not a good look. At the very least, it reinforces the impression that Bourla and his partner in grime, VdL, have something important to hide from EU lawmakers and citizens.

Commission’s Biggest Procurement Deal Ever

One reason why this is important is that the purchase of COVID-19 vaccines for the entire 27-nation bloc was the European Commission’s biggest and most expensive procurement challenge ever, paid for entirely with public funds. And Pfizer was far and away the biggest provider of those vaccines, accounting for just over half of the 4.6 billion doses (enough for more than 10 doses per EU citizen) procured from global pharmaceutical companies.

As a result of von der Leyen’s furtive communications with Pfizer, the Commission secured its third — and by far, largest — contract with Pfizer BioNTech. That contract, signed in May 2021, allowed for the purchase of 900 million doses of the wild type vaccine and of a vaccine adapted to variants, as well as the option to purchase an additional 900 million doses. As the European Court of Auditors notes, it was “the biggest COVID-19 vaccine contract signed by the Commission and will dominate the EU’s vaccine portfolio until the end of 2023”.

Yet serious questions remain about how those vaccines were procured and under what conditions. A recent report by the Court of Auditors into the EU’s vaccine procurement strategy found that VdL had directly participated in preliminary negotiations for the vaccine contract. As Politico notes, “this was a departure from the negotiating procedure followed with other contracts, where a joint negotiating team made up of officials from the Commission and member countries conducted exploratory talks.”

Instead, von der Leyen conducted preliminary negotiations on her own, and presented the results to the steering board in April. A planned meeting of scientific advisers, organized to discuss the EU’s vaccine strategy for 2022, never took place. The VdL-headed Commission also refused to provide records of the discussions with Pfizer, either in the form of minutes, names of experts consulted, agreed terms, or other evidence.

“We asked the Commission to provide us with information on the preliminary negotiations for this agreement,” the report’s authors write. “However, none was forthcoming.”

VdL is also in hot water due to her refusal to disclose the content of her text messages with Bourla, despite repeated requests from MEPs and the EU’s ombudsman Emily O’Reilly.  When O’Reilly urged the Commission to undertake a more thorough search for the text messages in question, the Commission played for time before finally declaring that it cannot and does not need to find the text messages.

“Due to their short-lived and ephemeral nature,” text messages “in general do not contain important information relating to policies, activities and decisions of the Commission,” wrote European Vice Commissioner for Values and Transparency Vera Jourová.

What is perhaps most concerning is the glaring disregard the VdL-led Commission appears to hold even for its own basic standards of transparency and accountability. And that is entirely at odds with VdL’s public stance. In her Political Guidelines, VdL states that if “Europeans are to have faith in our Union, its institutions should be open and beyond reproach on ethics, transparency and integrity.” Yet when the Court of Auditors asked the Commission for information about the preliminary negotiations, they were snubbed.

“No information was transmitted,” the inspectors told the Berliner Morgenpost. Internally, the inspectors are stunned: “This behavior is highly unusual, it has never happened before”.

Bourla’s Replacement

A spokesperson for Pfizer told Politico that in Bourla’s stead, Janine Small, the company’s president of international development markets, would attend the committee hearing. “She has been identified as best placed to support the committee in meeting their objectives,” the spokesperson said. But Small will not be able to shed any light on Bourla’s preliminary negotiations with VdL, which presumably is why she — and not Bourla — is there.

The committee’s chair, Belgian MEP Kathleen Van Brempt, told POLITICO she “deeply regrets” the decision taken by Pfizer. Italian MEP Stefania Zambelli, who is also member of the special committee, used less diplomatic language, describing the decision as “yet another episode in a story full of dark sides”:

“After von der Leyen’s silence, Bourla had the opportunity to set the record straight in the European Parliament, but he preferred to slip away. Why all these secrets? What do they have to hide from European citizens?”

Pressure Growing

Last week, the Berliner Morgenpost reported that the pressure on VdL is growing and that her rebuff of the EU’s Court of Auditors may have been a step too far. Citing information provided to its editorial team, the newspaper noted that the “EU Parliament’s budgetary control committee is preparing a formal reprimand, the displeasure in Parliament is great, and the first MPs are calling for the European Public Prosecutor’s Office to get involved.”

The lack of transparency in the multi-billion dollar contracts has long been an issue in the EU Parliament, in part because it helps to fuel anti-vaccine sentiment, says the newspaper: “Von der Leyen’s blockade is fuelling all sorts of speculation among critics, including [allegations of] a preference for the US company Pfizer.”

At the very least, the Committee on Budgetary Control will chastise the Commission and  insist that all information relevant to the audit must always be shared with the Court of Auditors, says Monika Hohlmeier (CSU), who chairs the Committee. The spokesman for the Greens in the EU Parliament, Rasmus Andresen, is calling for total transparency:

“The Pfizer deal needs to be explained. This is about billions that have been paid out of public coffers. We all have a right to know how the deals with the vaccine manufacturers came about.”

The Berliner Morgenpost article that compiled all of these statements was published on September 27. That was two days before Bourla chickened out of giving testimony to the EU parliament. In other words, the displeasure in Parliament is, if anything, likely to have grown since then. The pressure on VdL could rise even higher in the months to come as economic conditions in the EU sharply deteriorate, largely as a result of the backfiring economic sanctions her Commission imposed on the bloc’s biggest energy provider, Russia.

It is not as if VdL was even a popular choice of European Commission President. As a standalone candidate, she needed to secure 374 votes to be elected. As Euro News noted at the time, anything less than 400 votes would be seen as “disappointing”. She was only able to muster 383. More damning still, only one in three Germans believed their former defense minister would make a good commission president.

Hand picked as a compromise candidate by Macron and Merkel after weeks of backroom deal-making and power plays, VdL arrived in Brussels already under a cloud of scandal. In what was clearly a portent of things to come, she was already accused of erasing all of the files on her mobile phone which could have been used as evidence in an inquiry into the improper awarding of government contracts during her time as Defense Minister. Months later, it was discovered that she had wiped a second phone.

Still Some Admirers

But alas, not everyone is dissatisfied with VdL’s performance at the helm of the EU’s executive branch. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which holds substantial stock in both Pfizer and BioNTech, has been so impressed with her accomplishments in the role so far that in September it awarded her its Global Goalkeepers Award. Bill Gates himself gave the presentation speech, in which he lauded VdL’s management not only of the pandemic but also the war in Ukraine (no, seriously):

“Few world leaders have devoted themselves as fully to lifting up humanity as Ursula von der Leyen. Just a few months into her tenure as president of the European Commission, the first woman to hold the office, she found herself on the frontline of a once-in-a-century health crisis. Then, as Europe began to get its hands around the pandemic, a new crisis emerged, the tragic war in Ukraine, which President Von der Leyen has been working hard to minimize the damage and bring to an end.”

It’s worth recalling that Bill Gates and his partners, including the Wellcome Trust, a British research foundation with close ties to Big Pharma, essentially used their clout at the World Health Organization and other global health bodies to effectively control the global COVID response — and what’s more, with next to no oversight, as a recent Politico and Welt investigation found. And if they are happy, VdL must be doing something right. Right?

Source: nakedcapitalism.com