European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s silence about her dealings with drug-maker Pfizer leading to the EU’s biggest COVID-19 vaccine contract is hurting public trust and is a problem that will not go away, its ombudsman said.
“We need to hear what went on, otherwise it’s going to drag on,” Emily O’Reilly said in an interview, pointing to the EU public prosecutor’s investigation of the bloc’s acquisition of vaccines and the European parliament’s COVID committee’s plans to hold more hearings on the issue. “So it just won’t go away.”
In an interview with the New York Times in April 2021, von der Leyen revealed she had exchanged texts with Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla for a month while the contract was under negotiation, prompting calls to publish the exchange.
The Commission said in June 2022 that it no longer had the texts, which later drew criticism from the EU ombudsman.
O’Reilly argued many people would understand why von der Leyen approached Bourla to plead Europe’s case for vaccines, as tens of thousands of people on the continent were dying from COVID-19.
But secrecy fuels suspicion, she said.
“It’s the gift that keeps on giving to people who are hostile to the EU and who are anti-vax because it can feed into the narrative that something is being hidden.”
O’Reilly said the Commission had “stonewalled” her request last year for it to publish text messages exchanged by von der Leyen and Bourla in the months before Brussels signed a contract in May 2021 with Pfizer and BioNTech to buy up to 1.8 billion doses.
A Commission spokesperson told Reuters that it had concluded last June, and informed the ombudsman, that text messages did not quality as an EU document eligible for freedom of information requests under transparency rules.
“In an effort to ensure greater certainty, the Commission is working on issuing guidance on modern communication tools such as text and instant messages,” a spokesperson told Reuters. It has proposed to other EU institutions that they do the same, the spokesperson added.
The findings of the EU-appointed ombudsman are not binding. They can increase scrutiny by other EU institutions and citizens, which happened in this case.
Since O’Reilly’s declaration, members of the European Parliament vented anger in an October special hearing at Bourla’s refusal to appear and threatened to pursue banning Pfizer employees and lobbyists from entering parliament.
In February, the New York Times said it was suing the Commission over failure to release the text messages.