No texts. No contracts. No criticism. How Europe’s COVID inquiry went dark
When the European Parliament established a special committee on COVID
-19 in March 2022, the intent was to bring transparency and democratic accountability to the decisions made during the pandemic. However, 16 months later, the committee, known as COVI, finds itself enshrouded in secrecy, leaving crucial questions unanswered and European lawmakers in the dark.
Initially, the committee's creation came on the heels of the European Ombudsman's admonition to the European Commission for not scrutinizing text messages between Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Pfizer
CEO Albert Bourla. These messages were allegedly exchanged in the lead-up to the EU’s most significant vaccine
contract. The appointment of Kathleen Van Brempt, the Parliament’s Dieselgate investigator, as the head of the special committee signaled a rigorous approach.
Swathed in Secrecy
However, the committee’s commitment to transparency seemed to wane. On May 30th, a select group of MEPs in COVI were sworn to secrecy and privately informed about a new vaccine
agreement between the European Commission and Pfizer
. Attendees were prohibited from taking notes or having mobile phones in the meeting room. Moreover, this meeting was kept under wraps from other lawmakers on the COVI committee.
Pierre Delsaux, who leads the European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA), provided the briefing. Attendees were given verbal updates to the EU's 2021 contract with Pfizer
but were not shown the written contract. One of the participants indicated that the original commitment for 450 million vaccine
doses for the year was revised to 260 million doses spread over four years.
This clandestine meeting was the second of its kind, the first having taken place before the deal’s finalization on May 26th. These secret meetings signified a stark departure from the committee’s original mandate of transparency.
Obstacles to Transparency
COVI’s efforts to shed light on negotiations between the European Commission and Pfizer
met various impediments. The committee invited Pfizer
’s CEO and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to public appearances, but Bourla declined and Von der Leyen’s invitation was deflected by the Parliament’s Conference of Presidents.
The committee’s final report reflects this compromise on transparency. The report "regrets the lack of transparency" but deems it "partly justified by respect for the right to confidentiality". The demand for the publication of the full and unredacted contracts is notably absent.
Kathleen Van Brempt commented that although HERA’s willingness to update MEPs was positive, it did not address the broader issue of transparency for the public regarding contracts between the EU and vaccine
An Uncertain Path Forward
The European Parliament is now tasked with voting on the COVI report, likely to take place in July. What was initially conceived as a committee aimed at restoring transparency and accountability has faced a series of roadblocks, leaving an ambiguous legacy in its wake.
As the European public continues to seek clarity on the actions and decisions taken during the pandemic, the role of democratic institutions in ensuring transparency remains crucial. The trajectory of the COVI committee raises questions on the effectiveness of such institutions in safeguarding transparency and holding decision-makers accountable.