In an announcement on Friday [January 22], it said its inquiry follows a refusal by the EU Commission to share certain details with EU campaign group, the Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), about the purchase of potential vaccines against COVID-19
The Ombudsman has already contacted the Commission and asked for a response before February 11.
The EU watchdog's inquiry covers two CEO complaints:
The first concerns the Commission denying the campaigners access to its Covid-19 vaccine contract with AstraZeneca.
“The Commission rejected our FOI request for disclosure of the contract, with reference to protecting the commercial interests of AstraZeneca and claiming there was no overriding public interest in transparency. Corporate Europe Observatory appealed this decision, but the Commission has failed to respond within the deadlines defined in the EU FOI legislation,” said CEO.
The other complaint references the Commission's refusal to disclose documents to those advocates related to the vaccine negotiations, including notes of meetings and correspondence as well as the names of the members of the joint negotiation team, which consists of seven experts designated by member states.
Disclosure of CureVac contract
While the EU executive has recently taken some first steps to improve transparency, these have been shown to be haphazard and insufficient, said CEO.
Earlier this month, the Commission invited MEPs to read a redacted version of the CureVac contract under strict conditions in a reading room, and it posted the redacted CureVac contract on its website last week, a move that the office of the EU Ombudsman referenced in its announcement about the investigation:
“In our letter to the Commission, we asked it to take account of its recent decision to disclose - with only limited redactions - the agreement it signed with CureVac.”
The five other contracts remain confidential, with neither MEPs nor the general public having any access to the texts, said CEO.
“The CureVac contract shows that confidentiality was written into the contracts, giving the pharma companies a veto right. The contract also confirms fears that the lucrative advance purchase agreement (APAs) deals being negotiated in the dark would use public money to remove financial risk and liability from pharma companies developing COVID-19 vaccines,” according to those advocates.
Accountability and trust
Commenting on the inquiry, Olivier Hoedeman, researcher at Corporate Europe Observatory, said that transparency is crucial for informed public debate, democratic accountability, and public trust. “The Ombudsman's investigation is great news and will hopefully result in a much-needed breakthrough."
Reacting to the probe, Viviana Galli, coordinator, European Alliance for Responsible R&D and Affordable Medicines, said: "The lack of transparency undermines trust in the institutions and science, which is fundamental in current times. Secrecy and the need to ask private companies for disclosure authorization are unjustified where considerable amounts of public funds have been invested in research and development and used to conclude these deals. Exchanges with companies and the contracts should be disclosed in their entirety for public scrutiny and to ensure that the public interest has been protected."