EU chief can't find texts with Pfizer chief on COVID-19 vaccine deal

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen exchanged texts with Pfizer chief Albert Bourla for a month when they were negotiating a massive vaccine contract.

 President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen looks on as she speaks to the media in Ramallah, in the West Bank June 14, 2022. (photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMAD TOROKMAN)
President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen looks on as she speaks to the media in Ramallah, in the West Bank June 14, 2022.
(photo credit: REUTERS/MOHAMAD TOROKMAN)

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is no longer in possession of text messages that she exchanged with Pfizer chief Albert Bourla to seal a COVID-19 vaccine deal, the Commission said in a letter published on Wednesday.

In an interview in April 2021, von der Leyen revealed she had exchanged texts with Bourla for a month when they were negotiating a massive vaccine contract.

But in response to a public access request by a journalist because of the importance of the deal, the Commission did not share the texts, triggering accusations of maladministration by the EU's ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly.

"The Commission can confirm that the search undertaken by the President's cabinet for relevant text messages corresponding to the request for access to documents has not yielded any results," the EU justice commissioner Vera Jourova said in the letter to the ombudsman, an EU watchdog.

In the letter, the Commission argues that text messages do not need to be registered and stored because they are treated as "short-lived, ephemeral documents." The same exception to the general registration requirement applies to documents with no important information, the letter said.

 PFIZER CEO Albert Bourla, seen here during a press conference last year, made a virtual appearance at the Carnegie Hall event last week.  (credit: JOHN THYS/POOL VIA REUTERS) PFIZER CEO Albert Bourla, seen here during a press conference last year, made a virtual appearance at the Carnegie Hall event last week. (credit: JOHN THYS/POOL VIA REUTERS)

A spokesperson for the ombudsman said that it planned to publish a detailed analysis on the matter in the next couple of weeks.

What's the deal?

The deal, negotiated via text messages and calls, according to what von der Leyen herself said in her interview with the New York Times, was the biggest contract ever sealed for COVID-19 vaccines, with the EU committing to buy 900 million Pfizer-BioNTech PFE.N, 22UAy.DE shots, with an option to buy another 900 million.

When the deal was formally announced in May 2021, the EU had already secured hundreds of millions of vaccines from several drugmakers, including another 600 million doses from Pfizer and BioNTech under two previous contracts with the two companies.

The deal was backed by all EU governments but was later called into question by some of them who are now trying to renegotiate or cut supplies from Pfizer and other vaccine makers amid a slump in vaccination and growing risks of wastage.