EU ombudsman slams executive arm over vaccine communication

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union’s executive arm is responsible of “maladministration” for mishandling a request for access to text messages between its president and the CEO of pharmaceutical company Pfizer regarding COVID-19 vaccine purchases, the bloc’s ombudsman said Friday.

Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly recommended that the European Commission “do a more extensive search for the relevant messages” relating to such purchases.

In April last year, a story published by the New York Times revealed that EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla had exchanged text messages and calls about vaccine procurements for EU countries.

A journalist then asked the Commission for access to the text messages and other documents, but the executive branch did not provide any text, saying no record of such messages had been kept.

According to the ombudsman’s inquiry, the Commission did not clearly ask von der Leyen’s cabinet to look for the text messages, and as a result didn’t consider whether such text messages should be passed on.

“This falls short of reasonable expectations of transparency and administrative standards in the Commission,” O’Reilly said. “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.”

O’Reilly urged the Commission “to update its document recording practices to reflect this reality.”

Commission officials had argued that text messages are ephemeral and don’t contain important information to justify their inclusion in a document management system. But they acknowledged the content of a text was more relevant than the medium itself, the ombudsman’s services said.

The commission must send a response to the recommendation before April 26 and said it will answer in due course.

The coronavirus crisis has shed a light on the lack of transparency surrounding the negotiations for vaccines between the EU and big pharmaceutical groups.

The EU commission was mandated by member countries to organize the joint procurement of vaccines during the coronavirus crisis and led negotiations with manufacturers.

The EU has so far refused to say how much it paid for the billions of doses it secured, arguing that contracts are protected for confidentiality reasons.

In October last year, EU lawmakers voted a resolution calling for legislation to make purchasing and distributing COVID-19 vaccines more transparent.

“Access to EU documents is a fundamental right,” O’Reilly said. “While this is a complex issue for many reasons, EU administrative practices should evolve and grow with the times we live in and the modern methods we use to communicate.”

EU lawmaker Sophie in ’t Veld welcomed the ombudsman’s recommendation and said the European Parliament has been “too cosy” with the commission for much too long on transparency issues.

“This is bigger than just text messaging between von der Leyen and Pfizer,” she said. “The European Commission has become less transparent, less accountable to the European Parliament and frankly more unhinged from European democracy.”

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