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EU ombudsman rebukes von der Leyen over texts with Pfizer

January 28, 2022

The European Commission's lack of transparency over its communications with pharmaceutical companies to procure COVID-19 vaccines has been thrust back into the spotlight.

Vials of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine
Ursula von der Leyen's cabinet is accused of not trying hard enough to find copies of text messages between the Commission president and Pfizer's CEOImage: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

EU Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly on Friday accused the bloc's executive arm of "maladministration" and a lack of transparency after mishandling a request for access to text messages between European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla.

Last year, the New York Times revealed that when a journalist asked to see the texts relating to the procurement of COVID-19 vaccines for the European Union, they were told that the Commission did not keep records of text communications.

"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."

"Access to EU documents is a fundamental right," she added. O'Reilly said that while not all text messages should be recorded as a result of this obligation, "relevant" ones should.

Commission officials had argued that text messages are temporary and don't contain important information to justify their inclusion in a document management system.

The Commission is required to respond to O'Reilly's demand for a more modern approach to documentation by the end of April. 

Lack of transparency over vaccine purchases

Many questions remain as to how certain governments were able to procure massive shipments of vaccines faster in some parts of the world than others. The European Union has been opaque about how it got billions of doses, saying that contracts with pharmaceutical companies have confidentiality clauses.

Dutch member of the European Parliament Sophie in 't Veld welcomed the ombudsman's recommendation and said the European Parliament had been "too cozy" 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."

es/msh (AP, AFP)

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