Before these COVID-19 times, the quest for transparency in the health sector was making some progress at EU level. Access to documents was improving and, despite the Commission’s tight links with the pharmaceutical industry, things were slowly changing. Yet it seems that the Coronavirus pandemic has put the brakes on progress and pushed transparency back down the Commission’s list of commitments.
As COVID-19 vaccination programmes are likely to be rolled out this winter in many Member States, I believe it is crucial to recall that transparency is not just a ‘nice to have’; it is the indispensable basis for creating and fostering public trust. We should do everything in our power to ensure its highest level. In July, the European Commission put a strategy in place to ensure that all European citizens will have access to a vaccine against COVID-19.
“What was supposed to be a common race on behalf of public health was turning into competing efforts, drifting away from the goal of finding a global response to the pandemic”
This welcome move was based primarily on making advance purchases of vaccines from pharmaceutical companies to finance the development and production of vaccine doses for Europe. Already this summer, my colleagues and I underlined that - while we fully supported this initiative - we found the negotiations conditions problematic.
The so-called ‘vaccine nationalism’ and the fear of an imminent fierce battle for COVID-19 vaccine doses presented pharmaceutical companies with the perfect opportunity to conduct the bidding behind closed doors. What was supposed to be a common undertaking on behalf of public health was turning into competing efforts, drifting away from the goal of finding a global response to the pandemic.
The negotiated prices ended up being nowhere near accessible for most of the world’s population. This vaccine race also made the European leadership forget its promises of finding a global solution, as well as the fiasco we had to endure during an earlier epidemic, due to the lack of transparency imposed by pharmaceutical companies.
Less than ten years ago, during the bird flu epidemic, European governments invested billions in a drug called Tamiflu, which was found to be barely more effective than paracetamol. Because clinical trials data was withheld and only made available years after the market authorisation was granted, the lack of efficacy of the drug was only discovered long after governments had wasted huge sums of taxpayers’ money.
This scandal alone should have been sufficient evidence to show that access to public money needs to come with strings attached. Learning from experience, the Commission should have improved its accountability vis-à-vis EU-citizens.
Yet in July, while Members of the Parliament repeatedly waved red flags in the hemicycle and continuously expressed their dissatisfaction with the lack of transparency in the COVID-19 vaccines contracts’ negotiation process, the Commission kept refusing to provide more details on these contracts. Instead, it referred to the need to protect trade secrets and its deals with the industry.
This reaction made me wonder: who exactly is the Commission supposed to be representing in these negotiations? And what consequences does this secretive approach have on citizens? Polls have revealed that only one in five Europeans would willingly agree to take the COVID-19 vaccine the moment it becomes available. These results may seem puzzling, particularly considering the hardship this pandemic and crisis has brought upon many citizens. For me, it simply means that there is no trust in what citizens’ representatives are doing to procure the vaccines. I can excuse this scepticism, when in my capacity as MEP, even I cannot answer all of their questions.
“With the first doses potentially being available as soon as December, only transparency will both ensure the fullest safety of the vaccines and the trust of citizens”
Even MEPs don’t even have access to the most basic information: How much will the production of these vaccines cost? What will be the liability of the companies for any damage caused by a vaccine? Did the clinical trials include participants from sufficiently diverse populations and age groups? The Commission has recently made a concession to let some MEPs consult the contracts, but under conditions that do not reach our request for full transparency.
Claiming that all negotiations with the industry need to be fully concluded before MEPs are allowed to consult only parts of the contracts is a mockery of democracy. Citizens’ representatives should be allowed to verify how public money is being spent. For all the reasons mentioned above, I will continue to demand full transparency of the COVID-19 vaccines’ contracts and the publication of clinical trials data before marketing authorisations are granted. This is the only way to ensure that the actions of the European institutions are irreproachable.
With the first doses potentially being available as soon as December, only transparency will both ensure the fullest safety of the vaccines and the trust of citizens. Such transparency will be the key to the widespread use of COVID-19 vaccines, so why not have it replace the existing secrecy that we have right now?