EU Public Prosecutor Probes Vaccine Mega Order

20.10.2022 - The European Public Prosecutors Office (EPPO) has confirmed that it is looking into the EU Commission’s ordering of Covid-19 vaccines, with the probe thought to pertain in particular to order activity outside the usual purchasing channels.

EPPO did not provide details of exactly what its investigation targets or who ordered it, but reports say it focuses on the Commission’s order of up to 1.8 billion doses of Pfizer and BioNTech’s mRNA-based Comirnaty shot in May 2021.

The buy, first revealed by EC president Ursula von der Leyen in a tweet, covered 900 million doses for delivery in 2022 and 2023, with the option to order another 900 million doses later.

Starting with varying interpretations of an article in the magazine Politico, the circumstances surrounding the order have drawn heightened attention and in some case raised the hackles of some Commission critics who insist that the EU chief executive and Pfizer's CEO, Albert Bourla, negotiated the deal between themselves via text message. Both have denied this.

EPPO’s investigation builds on a European Court of Auditors report that found some irregularities in the Pfizer deal, such as the EU leadership sidestepping agreed protocols. However, as the report otherwise praises the Commission’s efforts and acknowledges that it acted quickly after a shortfall in AstraZeneca’s deliveries, some commentators have questioned the fuss.

As the biggest Covid vaccine contract order signed by the Commission, supplies from Pfizer BioNTech will dominate the EU’s vaccine portfolio until the end of 2023. This could lead to an oversupply of one manufacturer’s product, the auditors’ report notes.

Some East European member states have complained that the EC ordered too much vaccine that they are having to pay for, while members of the European Parliament’s Socialist factions suspect that the mega deal may have been a favor to a multinational corporation.

In this context, the MEPs criticize what they see as a lack of transparency around the transaction. Without public access to the text exchange between Von der Leyen and Bourla, one could ask whether vaccine makers exerted any pressure on politicians to block wider access to the intellectual property needed to make vaccine available to poorer countries, they insist.

Though this question is not part of the EPPO probe, it will continue to be a hotly discussed issue, as the EP has voted in favor of free access to technology. Thomas Triomphe, executive vice president of French drugmaker Sanofi, has told the Parliament the industry is expecting the discussion.

Author: Dede Williams, Freelance Journalist