Health brief: Transparency in COVID contracts

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The EU had to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic fast. However, critics quickly highlighted a lack of transparency in the process – especially with vaccine contracts. These critics are not done fighting.

Exactly one year ago, the EU sued AstraZeneca for not delivering the amount of COVID-19 vaccines promised in their contract. AstraZeneca had delivered only one-third of the promised 180 million doses to the EU in the second quarter of 2021. In the end, the two parties agreed on a settlement.

The conflict between the two bodies brought into sharper relief the lack of transparency around the content of such vaccine contracts – especially, the sums of money exchanged.

There is a lot we still do not know about the process of getting these agreements in place. The redacted versions of the vaccine contracts with BioNTech-Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna and others are available online, but the pages feature big chunks of grey where information about prices, supply, delivery and many other things should be – take this BioNTech-Pfizer agreement as an example.

The lack of transparency has angered many. Back in January of this year, the European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly accused the Commission of maladministration for denying a journalist access to text messages between Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla during the period where vaccine contracts were being negotiated.

Tuesday (26 April) was supposed to be the day where O’Reilly received a reply on the matter. Instead, a Commission spokesperson announced that the Commission had requested a four-week extension of the deadline.

Angry MEPs

Members of the European Parliament have been fired up about the level of transparency with COVID vaccine contracts since the very beginning. The climate of secrecy was there from the start: the first time MEPs were granted a look at a contract, scrutiny had to happen in a specially secured reading room.

Since then, MEPs have not shied away from demanding more transparency in the EU’s vaccine policy. In October 2021, five MEPs from the Greens group filed legal action against the European Commission.

Now, the same five green MEPs are back at it, having modified their legal case last Friday. This time, it is against the Commission’s decision from 16 February 2022 to grant only partially wider access to the purchase agreements. Once again, the green MEPs are demanding full access to the contracts and information about the prices of vaccines, advance payments, liabilities and donations.

Their reason to run this case against the Commission is that hiding information fuels mistrust, green MEP and part of the legal action, Tilly Metz, told EURACTIV.

“I don’t understand why [transparency] was not a condition from the beginning, since we put in public money. It’s because of transparency that you can have trust in the procedure and in the product. So that’s why we are fighting. It’s about the overriding public interest,” Metz said.

“Citizens’ health should be considered an overriding interest — also compared to what they call commercial secrets. We don’t want to know every detail of the component of the vaccine. That is not what we’re speaking about. We are speaking about, for example, the liability issue,” she continued.

Metz acknowledges the unprecedented nature of the pandemic and the status of vaccine contracts as a public-private partnership. Still, she is convinced that it is now time to learn and achieve more transparency.

“I’m very convinced that we can win this [case]. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but if we don’t try, we will never start rebalancing power [between the public and the pharmaceutical companies]. If we put public money into something, we need to have this transparency. If we want the citizens to trust in our procedures, we need to have this transparency,” Metz said.

Commenting on the renewed legal action, a Commission spokesperson said that they have taken note of the legal steps and will cooperate.

“I think our position with regards to transparency of vaccine contracts has always been crystal clear and quite transparent. For us, transparency has always been and is crucial,” the spokesperson said, highlighting that contracts are available on the website.

“Parts of these contracts have been redacted, but that was because we were bound by confidentiality obligations, which we have to respect,” he added.

The spokesperson said that they had ensured regular contact between the Parliament and Commissioners to keep MEPs informed.

The way forward

Although the pandemic is far from over, the European Parliament is in the process of reflecting on what can be learned from the past two years. Recently, a new special committee on COVID-19 (COVI) was set up to learn lessons from the pandemic response. One of the issues to discuss will be transparency.

Metz, who is a member of this committee, is optimistic that their work on transparency will have an impact in the future. So is the committee’s newly elected chair, socialist MEP Kathleen van Brempt. In her view, it was “extremely important that the Commission took over the responsibility of doing the purchase and the negotiations for the whole of the European Union.”

“But the downside of such work, in general, is the lack of accountability, transparency and things like that,” van Brempt told EURACTIV, adding that their work will include current issues concerning vaccines to the Global South.

The question that remains is whether the new special committee will be granted enough insight to be able to meaningfully draw lessons to learn from in the future.

“The strength of this committee is that we have the power and the ability to have an in-depth discussion. And we should make full use of that,” van Brempt said.

“But it’s up to us to be very vigilant in our working methods,” she added.

Beyond the pandemic, the war in Ukraine is an example of another event where we have to act quickly, van Brempt said, highlighting that the lessons learnt in the special committee should help guide us in our reactions to many other types of crises in the future.

By Amalie Holmgaard Mersh


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Subscribe to EURACTIV’s Health Brief, where you’ll find the latest roundup of news covering health from across Europe. The Health Brief is brought to you by EURACTIV’s Health Team Giedrė Peseckytė, Clara Bauer-Babef, Amalie Holmgaard Mersh, Gerardo Fortuna, and Natasha Foote.

Short news

AMR

Colistin criticism. Health commissioner Stella Kyriakides reaffirmed support for the European Medicines Agency (EMA)’s set of recommendations for antimicrobials to be reserved for humans only despite criticism over the non-inclusion of colistin, an antibiotic used in veterinary medicine.

COVID-19

Recommended therapeutics. The World Health Organisation (WHO) called Paxlovid, a Pfizer’s therapeutic, the best therapeutic choice for high-risk  COVID-19 patients to date but the “strong recommendation” raises concerns that it may be out of reach for low- and middle-income countries.

Mental health and social distance. New research suggests that the main cause of mental health decline during the COVID-19 pandemic was social distancing rules.

IP waiver latest. The European Commission is leading talks on a waiver of intellectual property (IP) rights on COVID vaccines and treatments. However, critics from the pharmaceutical industry argue that changes to the current IP system could jeopardise research and development in their sector.

Beijing lockdown. Three-quarters of Beijing’s 22 million people began lining up for COVID-19 tests on Tuesday (26 April) as authorities in the Chinese capital raced to stamp out an outbreak and avert the kind of city-wide lockdown that has shrouded Shanghai for a month.

War in Ukraine

Human trafficking, rape and abortion. Ukrainian women fleeing the war are at risk of sexual violence, rape, and trafficking and those who are pregnant as a result cannot get an abortion in Poland due to one of Europe’s strictest anti-abortion laws.

Access to healthcare and aid in Ukraine. As the war in Ukraine nears the end of its second month, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has reported continued challenges in accessing healthcare and delivering emergency aid to some of the hardest-hit areas of the conflict, issues that were also discussed by MEPs this week.

French election 

Health professionals. French health professionals urged the electorate to vote against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen’s ‘problematic’ health programme just a few days before she meets incumbent President Emmanuel Macron in the final round of the polls. EURACTIV France reports.

Disabilities. Incumbent French President Emmanuel Macron and his far-right contender Marine Le Pen clashed over the current practice of taking into account the partner’s income when calculating the allowance for disabled adults in a debate ahead of their final face-off on Sunday (24 April). EURACTIV France reports.

News from the bubble

Vytenis back in business. Former Health EU Commissioner and current World Health Organization (WHO) Special Envoy for the European Region Vytenis Andriukaitis joined the cross-sectoral coalition of NGOs, think tanks, trade associations and businesses as its new chair. “We are at a crossroads on the Future of Europe and the only direction of choice should be further integration – bringing great minds together to improve the lives of everyone in Europe,” Andriukaitis commented after the appointment.

EuropaBio’s recommendations. The biotech trade association EuropaBio has published a set of recommendations for healthcare and industrial biotechnology sectors which could serve the policymakers to get a better understanding of the sector’s potential and regulatory challenges in operating on the national and EU level. Among the recommendations, there are the creation of regulatory frameworks suited to accelerating novel technologies to market and aligning the information required for regulatory and health technology assessment (HTA) frameworks.

The Capitals

VIENNA

SDP leader: Mandatory vaccination has no future in Austria. The COVID-19 vaccine will never be made mandatory in Austria, according to Social Democratic Party leader Pamela Rendi-Wagner who previously was in favour of making the vaccine mandatory. By  Laura Kabelka |  EURACTIV.de

Austrian schools to scrap compulsory masks. Face masks will no longer have to be worn in schools from next week in Austria, Education Minister Martin Polascheck from the conservative ÖVP confirmed on Wednesday. By  Laura Kabelka |  EURACTIV.de

PRAGUE

More EU money needed to tackle Czech refugee crisis. The Czech Republic and eight other countries most affected by the refugee crisis will apply for EU financial assistance to ensure the effective use of existing and additional EU resources. By  Ondřej Plevák |  EURACTIV.cz

Prague pushes for joint EU purchases of orphan drugs. Czech Health Minister Vlastimil Válek is calling for joint EU purchases of orphan medicines used against rare diseases as potential EU contracts could reduce the price of drugs and increase their accessibility for patients. By  Aneta Zachová |  EURACTIV.cz

SKOPJE

North Macedonia lifts COVID-19 entry restrictions. Visitors entering North Macedonia will no longer be required to present a vaccination certificate or a negative COVID-19 test. By exit.al

Upcoming events

29-30 April – Symposium of the Belgian Hospital Physicist Association.

9-13 May – Mental Health Awareness Week

24-25 May – EIT Health Summit in Stockholm, Sweden.

16 June – European Health Summit

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

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