Pharma-secrecy: EU calls for greater transparency over COVID-19 vaccine contracts

December 1, 2020

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2 min read

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What's going on here?

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are calling for greater transparency over the terms of COVID-19 vaccine procurement contracts between the European Commission and pharmaceutical companies, particularly those setting out who will be liable if the vaccines are defective.

What does this mean?

On 22 September 2020, Sandra Gallina, Deputy Director-General of the body responsible for procuring vaccines for the EU, appeared in front of the European Parliament, where she was pressured to increase transparency of the vaccine contracts. Two months have passed, and still very little is known about the terms of these contracts. MEPs are continuing to call for greater disclosure of who will bear liability for defective vaccines.

A memo circulated by Vaccines Europe, which represents pharmaceutical companies including AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer, revealed that the urgent need for a vaccine means that research and development that would usually take years has been compressed into months. The memo says that this creates “inevitable” risks that vaccines could have “adverse events”. This risk, coupled with the widespread rollout of the vaccines, could expose pharmaceuticals to extensive litigation. To compensate for this, Vaccines Europe has recommended that pharmaceuticals are exempted from liability if their vaccines are defective.

What's the big picture effect?

Drug procurement contracts are typically highly confidential. However, this story highlights a persuasive argument for making an exception and disclosing more information. The unprecedented level of public investment in vaccine research and development makes a strong case for increased transparency and accountability. If the contracts shifted liability from pharmaceuticals to Member States, this would put even more public money on the line.

Moreover, pharmaceuticals’ reluctance to bear liability has generated public distrust in their vaccines. It has undermined confidence in them as responsible partners and created the perception that the vaccines have been developed hastily and haphazardly. Combined with the growth of the anti-vaccine movement, conspiracy theories and reports of research fraud and unreliable methodology, this could exasperate vaccine hesitancy and deter people from getting vaccinated. Greater transparency is needed to restore public trust and ensure the effective deployment of the vaccines.

At present, a vaccine appears to be the most hopeful long-term solution to the coronavirus pandemic. Given the lives and economies at stake, an effective and expedient solution is necessary. However, the Commission’s current approach appears to be foregoing transparency and accountability for the sake of a quick solution, which could be counter-productive for the vaccines’ effectiveness and the protection of public health.

Report written by Isobel Deane

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