Report on lessons from crisis includes—and ignites—some criticism.
The European Parliament’s voluminous report on lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic1 says a little about COVID, and a lot about the challenges that Europe faces in continuing to host a thriving medicines industry. In particular, the report and its attendant debates reveal the depths of the split in public—or at any rate parliamentary—opinion about science, medicines, and management. The episode also suggests some fragility in the centrist tendencies that–largely to the benefit of the pharmaceutical industry—have dominated European policy for decades, of particular significance given the impending change in EU leadership due in 2024.
First, what does the report say about COVID and the EU? Plenty of self-congratulation about the management of a crisis, about valiant researchers and doctors, about the massive delivery of vaccines in the EU, and about sterling efforts to provide for the rest of the world. All rather predictable and rather anodyne.
It also makes plenty of positive comments on the contribution of the healthcare industries. Scientific research and innovation “allowed the development and roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines in record time, therefore saving millions of lives worldwide,” says one of its clauses. “The speed at which researchers developed effective vaccine protection was unprecedented,” says another.
The report also carries stout defenses of orthodoxy. The benefits of the vaccines “far outweighed their potential risks,” and “complemented by the use of conditional marketing authorization, contributed to a remarkable reduction in deaths and hospitalizations in the EU, as well as overall protection from the most severe effects of COVID-19.” It “underlines the importance of decision-making based on scientific evidence.” And the report makes plenty of suggestions for more innovation-friendly regulation, even urging the EU to explore the same approach beyond pandemic situations.
So what’s not to like? Perhaps this: “COVID-19 has laid bare the ways in which the market-driven model of drug development and production can work against the equitable and affordable distribution of emergency medical products.” The report “notes with concern the lack of preconditions attached to public investments in the COVID-19 vaccines, as well as medicine development that could have facilitated greater public returns on public investments.” Or this: the report also “notes with concern the transfer of financial risks related to liability for serious adverse effects of COVID-19 vaccines to the member states and the risk of this becoming a standard practice.” Also this: “National pricing should be based on fully transparent factors, such as the real costs of public and private R&D and added therapeutic value.”
These are just some of the critical observations that made their way into the final report. But they are in many respects only a pale shadow of what did not get in—the dozens of amendments from skeptical MEPs who accused the mainstream political groups of conniving to produce a report that is “a whitewash,” “a cover-up,” “a farce.”2
The debate reflected a deep distrust of imposed lockdowns and novel treatments. It articulated widely-held anger in the parliament at the refusal of the EU to divulge details of payments and liability arrangements in the contracts with industry. And it resurrected the long-standing concerns about the role of the European Commission president in exchanging private messages with the head of Pfizer outside the formal vaccine contract negotiation procedures.3 The failure to disclose the messages “has critically deprived” the parliament of essential information for its evaluation, according to the parliament’s ECR Group.4 Confidence was not helped by “the outright refusal of Pfizer’s Albert Bourla to participate in a hearing” and “the refusal of Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen,” which “raises grave concerns about the Commission’s commitment to transparency and its lack of democratic accountability,” said the group.
Although much of the criticism has been sidelined by the main political groups, who claim to be taking a noble stand against “populism,” there is little doubt that the reputation of the EU and its handling of the pandemic remains tarnished and that serious doubts have been implanted about EU credibility. As the EU gears up to elect a new parliament and appoint a new European Commission next year, the risk rises of political fragmentation—fed in part by resentment. That cannot be a helpful scenario for the pharmaceutical sector.
1. Report on the COVID-19 Pandemic: Lessons Learned and Recommendations for the Future. European Parliament. June 26, 2023, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/A-9-2023-0217_EN.html
2. Verbatim Report of Proceedings. European Parliament. July 11, 2023, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/CRE-9-2023-07-11-ITM-010_EN.html
3. EU's von der Leyen Can't Find Texts With Pfizer Chief On Vaccine Deal -Letter. Reuters. June 29, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/eus-von-der-leyen-cant-find-texts-with-pfizer-chief-vaccine-deal-letter-2022-06-29/
4. Amendment 17, Robert Roos, On Behalf of the ECR Group. European Parliament. July 5, 2023, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/A-9-2023-0217-AM-017-017_EN.pdf