EU watchdog takes Commission to task over ‘missing’ vaccine text messages

By Jane Byrne contact

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/akinbostanci
© GettyImages/akinbostanci

Related tags: Vaccine, EU Commission, Pfizer

The EU Ombudsman has closed the inquiry into the EU Commission’s handling of a request for text messages between its president and the CEO of Pfizer, upholding the finding of maladministration.

One year after the initial request by a journalist, the EU Commission (EC) has still not clarified whether messages between its president, Ursula von der Leyen and Pfizer CEO, Albert Bourla, reportedly about the COVID-19 vaccine procurement deal exist and whether the public is entitled to see them, according to the independent body.

The Ombudsman had asked the EC, in a finding of maladministration in January, to conduct a more thorough search for the text messages.

The EC’s most recent response​ failed to say whether it had looked directly and correctly for the text messages and if not, why not, noted the EU watchdog.

While the response recognized that work-related text messages can be EU documents, it reiterated that the EC’s internal policy is, in effect, not to register text messages.

“The Commission’s response to my findings neither answered the basic question of whether the text messages in question exist nor provided any clarity on how the Commission would respond to a specific request for other text messages,” said EU Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly.

“The handling of this access to documents request leaves the regrettable impression of an EU institution that is not forthcoming on matters of significant public interest.”

“Public access to work-related text messages is a new area for the EU administration and one that needs to be tackled substantively and in good faith. This inquiry is a wake-up call to all EU institutions.”

Recommendations for recording work-related text messages

Separately, after gathering information on the rules and practices on the recording of text and instant messages across the EU administration, the Ombudsman yesterday published practical recommendations for dealing with this issue.

The recommendations call for

  • Work-related text and instant messages to be recognized as EU documents.
  • Technological solutions should be put in place to enable the easy recording of such messages.
  • Staff should have clear guidance on how such messages should be recorded.
  • Requests for public access to documents that could cover text messages should be dealt with in a way that considers all locations where such messages might be stored.

Background

In April 2021, the New York Times published an article in which it reported that von der Leyen and Bourla had exchanged texts related to the procurement of COVID-19 vaccines. This prompted a journalist to request public access to text messages and other documents relating to the exchange.  The complainant turned to the Ombudsman after the EC had not identified any text messages as falling within the scope of his request.

The Ombudsman inquiry revealed that the EC did not explicitly ask the president’s cabinet to look for text messages. Instead, it asked her cabinet to look for documents that fulfil the EC’s internal criteria for recording - text messages are not considered to meet these criteria. The Ombudsman found that this amounted to maladministration and asked it to do a more extensive research for the text messages.

Regulation 1049/2001, which sets out the public’s right to access EU documents, defines a document as “any content whatever its medium (written on paper or stored in electronic form or as a sound, visual or audiovisual recording) concerning a matter relating to the policies, activities and decisions falling within the institution's sphere of responsibility”.

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