MEPs and health advocates believe that vaccine contracts will leave pharma companies with a large payout. Contracts’ terms and costs that EU taxpayers will have to cover are still unknown as leaders in Brussels refuse to clarify these points.
On November 24, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen announced that the EU had signed a sixth contract for millions of coronavirus shots, raising the total number of purchased vaccines to 2 billion. But EU officials won’t provide information about how much the Union is paying for the vaccines, many of which benefited from public research funds. Even other terms of the contracts are not clear, including potential protections for drugmakers if their vaccines fail to be effective.
For this reason, MEPs, civil society groups, global health advocates and procurement experts are now asking the Commission to release the contracts for public review. “This is clearly in the interest of us all, and there’s clearly so much money involved, which is taxpayers’ money,” said Anniek de Ruijter, an assistant professor of European law at the University of Amsterdam. “It makes a lot of sense to ask for all of that information, and it is in the interest of people to know about it.”
Doing so would put the Commission in a tight spot. Releasing the contracts would reveal drugmakers’ secrets, and, most importantly, would risk making the Commission’s procurement process impossible, according to Sandra Gallina, director general of the directorate general for health and food safety (DG SANTE) and the Commission’s responsible person on the negotiations with drugmakers. Vaccines Europe, the organization representing key vaccine players such as AstraZeneca and Pfizer, did not comment on this matter.
A key question that the Commission refuses to answer is how much EU taxpayers are financing for the development of the vaccines, and what they are getting in return.
According to Mark Eccleston-Turner, a law lecturer at Keele University, many governments are paying the vaccines two times. Firstly, countries are financing the underwriting the research and development of the vaccines, which, according to drugmakers, represents an enormous production cost prior to regulatory approval. Secondly, countries pay again to buy the vaccine once they are approved for use.
- Do you know how high a commercial plane flies and why?
- 5 health benefits of kimchi
- Seville to charge tourists to visit Plaza de España
This is clearly in the interest of us all, and there’s clearly so much money involved, which is taxpayers’ money.Anniek de Ruijter, an assistant professor of European law at the University of Amsterdam
“It’s a win-win from a pharmaceutical point of view,” he added. The price that the Commission is paying per dose is not public information. Some vaccine producers have been more transparent. AstraZeneca, for example, said it will sell its vaccine at cost (roughly €2 per dose) until the end of the pandemic.
Other companies, like Moderna, have released very approximate figures. Moderna publicly priced its vaccine at between $32 and $37 per dose, but then made a deal with the U.S. for about $25 a dose. According to Reuters, the EU purchased a vaccine for less than $25 per dose. At the EU level, there’s no law regulating how much drug manufactures can ask for a vaccine. The Commission commented that it’ll only sign deals for vaccines that EU member states can afford.
With no transparency, it’s impossible to know how much pharma companies are gaining. But at some level, vaccine-makers are clearly profiting already. When Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna announced successful efficacy rates by press release, their share prices soared. After the announcement, Moderna and Pfizer executives have also gained profit by selling their companies’ stock.
MEPs insist since the summer that the Commission should release more information. In response, Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides has declared that the Commission can’t release the information without permission from the drugmakers. The Commission has sought to placate MEPs by saying it might show them some contract provisions once the agreements are finalized.
According to Pascal Canfin, head of the Parliament’s health committee, this declaration does not satisfy their request for more transparency. “Transparency needs to be done for all the citizens and not only for some MEPs and under [a] confidentiality agreement,” he said.
Some global health advocates say the Commission shouldn’t have made the deals in the first place. Brussels has supported global efforts to secure vaccines for low- and middle-income countries. The Commission has provisions in its contracts allowing EU countries to sell or donate their vaccines to other countries. However, the supply will be extremely limited for months, and critics say the EU is still putting its own citizens first.
Eccleston-Turner pointed out that it’s important to know how much of the initial supply is allocated for EU member states. This “makes a big difference as to how many vaccines are left over to be split between developing countries,” he declared. And EU member states certainly forced the Commission to act quickly at the beginning of the pandemic. The Commission started taking serious actions only once Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands teamed up to negotiate vaccines with AstraZeneca because they were afraid the US would buy all the vaccines. “If the EU doesn’t buy them, someone else will,” concluded Eccleston-Turner.