EU’s lack of transparency around COVID-19 vaccine negotiations is damaging public trust

By Emily Wegener, TI Global Health


Securing a sufficient supply of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines is of course one of the biggest priorities for governments around the world right now. The European Union has chosen to jointly negotiate, procure, and centrally distribute the vaccines to Member States[1]. But it has remained silent about key details of these negotiations including the identities of negotiators.

The EU argues ongoing negotiations need to be protected from external influence and pressure, However, withholding this critical information, as has happened with many vaccine development and procurement processes throughout the pandemic, demonstrates a significant and potentially dangerous lack of transparency. Vaccine hesitancy, already a serious concern across Europe, risks being fuelled by continued secrecy.

Following marketing authorisation for several COVID-19 vaccines in late 2020 and early 2021, the European Commission was given a mandate to organise the joint procurement of vaccines for Member States. To do so, the Commission set up a Steering Committee which appointed a Joint Negotiation Team — a handful of representatives from France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Sweden and the Netherlands — to carry out the negotiations on behalf of ‘Team Europe’[2].

The names of these negotiators remain largely unknown despite their key role in the procurement of the vaccine for the entire EU and the huge budget at their disposal — around €2.75 billion[3]. According to the European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Stella Kyriakides, “[t]he Commission decided not to disclose the names of the members of the team in order to ensure that the joint negotiation team carries out its tasks independently and without being subject to undue external influence or pressure.”[4]

In other words, EU citizens should remain in the dark about the identities of those negotiating their access to life-saving vaccines, despite the scientific consensus that transparency itself is the best antidote for undue influence and corruption.

Meanwhile, inevitably the names of those on the negotiating team will have leaked out to others in the sector – arguably leaving them susceptible to influence from those with the most to gain.


Will a new resolution lead to increased transparency?

A group of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) also found this lack of transparency unacceptable and has pushed for more publicly available details surrounding the development, purchase, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. They point out that lack of transparency undermines public trust in the vaccine and will hinder the vaccination programme. As a result, the European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution on October 21 this year. It called on the Commission to disclose who is negotiating the vaccine procurement on behalf of the EU[5]. As yet, those details have not been revealed.

Disturbingly, lack of transparency is a common thread through all stages of the COVID-19 vaccine supply chain. Our recent report, For Whose Benefit found that clinical trial results for the majority of COIVD-19 vaccines remained largely undisclosed and lacks a coherent global clinical trial transparency policy. To date, most vaccine procurement contracts remain unpublished, and the few contracts that have been made public are significantly redacted. This is a counterproductive approach, undermining citizen trust, giving fuel to misinformation and vaccine hesitancy and preventing public accountability — issues October’s resolution was intended to address[6].


Who’s behind negotiations?

Aiming to close this knowledge gap, the journalist network Investigate Europe[7] (IE) has tried to find out who is running negotiations on behalf of the EU. The most prominent figure to openly disclose his appointment to the team is Sweden’s representative Richard Bergström, who has a long history as a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry in Brussels[8] and appears to maintain ties to the sector.

According to IE, Bergström remains a lobbyist for Hoelzle Buri Partners Consulting  (HBPC), a company consulting two pharmaceutical lobby firms. He is also the managing director of his own Swiss-based consulting firm Bergström GmbH, which has close ties to HBPC. This does not necessarily mean there is a conflict of interest, as it remains unclear exactly in which area of the pharmaceutical industry the lobby firms are active. Every negotiator on the EU team has also signed a declaration of absence of conflict of interests upon appointment.  Bergström did not comment on his pharma links when asked by IE. The Swedish government did not answer questions either.[9]

There are other unanswered questions. IE, was unable to identify the vaccine contract negotiators appointed by Italy, Poland, and Germany. If this information is being deliberately withheld from the public, it sets a dangerous precedent, preventing the EU Parliament from effectively scrutinising how public funds are being used.[10].

If public trust in the system for procuring COVID-19 vaccines is undermined, there is little question that the success of the entire programme on the continent is at risk.

With the fourth wave of the pandemic hitting EU Member States with low vaccination rates particularly hard — driven by misinformation and low levels of trust in public institution[11], the European Commission needs to act upon the parliamentary resolution and reveal the full details of the negotiation and procurement processes to the public.