The European Public Prosecutor’s Office has opened an investigation into EU purchases of coronavirus vaccines, an announcement that will refocus attention on European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s role in the matter.
The European Public Prosecutor’s Office is an independent EU body responsible for investigating and prosecuting financial crimes, including fraud, money laundering and corruption. In its announcement on Friday, the European Public Prosecutor’s Office did not specify who was under investigation, or which EU vaccine contracts were under review.
However, two other watchdog agencies have previously drawn attention to a particular deal involving high-level contact between Pfizer management and von der Leyen.
“This exceptional confirmation comes after extremely high public interest. No further details will be made public at this stage,” the EPPO said in its brief announcement.
In April 2021, The New York Times first reported on text messages exchanged between von der Leyen and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla ahead of the EU’s biggest vaccine supply deal – up to 1.8 billion doses of BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine. The deal would be worth up to 35 billion euros if fully exercised, according to disclosed vaccine prices.
In January this year, the EU ombudsman accused the Commission of maladministration for failing to seek out the text messages in response to a freedom of information request. Without confirming the existence of the texts, the Commission argued in its response that “ephemeral and ephemeral documents are not preserved”. He said a search for the text messages yielded no results.
Then, last month, the European Court of Auditors published a report in which it said the Commission refused to release details of von der Leyen’s personal role in the Pfizer contract talks.
The budget watchdog found that the EU chief deviated from the playbook set in previous vaccine negotiations to personally strike a preliminary deal with the US multinational, instead of relying on teams of joint negotiation. Unlike all other contracts, the Commission refused to provide the court with any documents relating to the preliminary negotiations for this specific agreement.
In response to the announcement, Belgian Socialist MEP Kathleen van Brempt said that “several aspects” of the Pfizer contract must be examined, including “the SMS between the President of the Commission and the fact that there is no written record of the preliminary negotiations in the first instance”.
The MEP chairs the European Parliament’s special committee on COVID-19. The EU ombudsman and a member of the European Court of Auditors appeared before the panel, where they answered questions on the subject of text messages.
“The [COVID-19] the committee will follow this case very carefully,” van Brempt said.
An EU health department official said the Commission had “no comments to make at this stage”.