Von der Leyen’s Pfizer texts

The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, is under fire for having lost her text messages with the CEO of Pfizer, Albert Bourla. The charges are not entirely fair – and acting on them risks doing more harm than good.

The EU’s ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, said that the commission was guilty of «maladministration» when it failed to publicise the texts following a journalist’s request.

Now, a momentum is building in the European Parliament to hold the commission accountable. «When giant vaccine deals are conducted via text messages, of course it is important for those providing oversight to be able see them,» Sophie int’Veld, an influential Dutch MEP, argued.

While transparency is generally desirable in public life, there can also be too much of it. And, in fact, the commission’s procurement of vaccines against Covid-19 is a case in point – notwithstanding the current brouhaha over ‘Delete-gate’.

To be sure, von der Leyen herself has a track record of suffering similar technological mishaps before. The content of Blackberry phones that she used as Germany’s defence minister, containing communications over lucrative government contracts, were also conveniently wiped out («by negligence») ahead of a Bundestag inquiry.

Yet, there are good reasons to accord her significant leeway in this particular instance.

After all, the main problem afflicting the EU’s approach to vaccine procurement, particularly in the autumn and winter months of 2020 was not the commission’s excessive and non-transparent coziness with Big Pharma – but rather its risk aversion in face of possible scrutiny from member states, which had delegated it the task of purchasing vaccines for the entire EU.

The commission’s early mistake was to do everything by the book, in order to insulate itself from any prospective criticism.

Hence the decision to diversify the vaccine portfolio to include not only Johnson & Johnson and Astra Zeneca, but also the failed Sanofi – instead of aggressively locking in, early on, a sufficient number of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines which were visibly superior.

Only in November of 2020 did the commission place a firm order for 200 million Pfizer doses, with an option for 100 million more, as well as 80 million doses from Moderna, with an option for another 80 million to be delivered at a later date.

The commission went out of its way to negotiate prices that were below those paid by other countries, such as the UK or Israel, preempting any accusations of extravagance.

What may have seemed prudent, however, was inadequate to the challenge posed by the pandemic.

The broader social and economic benefits of getting shots in people’s arms exceeded any conceivable cost by one or two orders of magnitude. Protecting people and resuming normal life sooner rather than later was enormously valuable, too.

In short, this was the moment for the commission – and for policymakers across the developed world – to simply ignore the costs and go bold. Doing so, furthermore, would not have compromised the availability of vaccines for other, poorer countries – quite the contrary. The more generous initial bidders are, the easier it becomes for pharmaceutical companies to scale up and build additional capacity.

If anything, Von der Leyen should be applauded for changing the course in the spring of 2021, when the commission faced criticisms (including by myself) in the wake of its altercations with Astra Zeneca, whose deliveries were slipping behind the expected timeline.

In May of 2021, the commission thus announced a new contract with Pfizer to deliver as many as 1.8 billion doses to the EU, at higher price than before (€19.5 compared to €12 and €15.5 for earlier contracts).

The European public and EU governments are perfectly capable of judging for themselves whether the commission did a good job overall – and whether the additional expense was worth it. The amounts ordered (and delivered), the costs, and other contractual terms are all public information.

Deeply misguided

And legal formalities aside, the idea that all communication between the commission’s officials and Pfizer should be also revealed to the public is deeply misguided.

For one, this was far from an instance of conventional public procurement, in which public authorities mechanically pick the objectively best bid, based on previously announced criteria. There are only a handful of companies in the world producing adequate vaccines against Covid-19 and their overall supply was long constrained.

It is possible, even probable, that the commission was not in the best position to act in a forward-looking, entrepreneurial manner to incentivise additional supply – particularly compared against the nimble ways in which British and Israeli governments operated – but it should not be penalised for having tried to do so, albeit late.

The corollary of the unfettered transparency that some MEPs are calling for is turning every negotiation, previously conducted in private, into a public relations exercise. It suggests that in future crises, public officials should always double down on their risk aversion and their commitment to process above all else – lest their text messages or in-person communications become subjects of public scrutiny.

Of course, the likes of int’Veld have good reasons to seize the present moment to make the European Parliament look appear relevant, in spite of its many shortcomings and its limited role in actual European policymaking.

However, not only is giving more power to the parliament not the answer to the EU’s democratic deficit, but also the parliamentarians’ current attempt circumscribe the space in which public officials – this time those in the European Commission – can bargain in confidence risks leading to bureaucratic paralysis and ultimately making the EU and its institutions irrelevant.

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