The European Commission has said it is unable to locate text messages sent between its president, Ursula von der Leyen, and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla during talks for a huge vaccine deal, last year, but has denied prior charges of “maladministration” from an EU watchdog.
The commission issued a letter on Wednesday stating that an expanded search for the missing messages had “not yielded any results,” following months of dispute between the EU’s executive body and oversight officials. It argued that due to the “short-lived and ephemeral nature” of texts, they typically “do not contain important information” and are therefore rarely stored.
While von der Leyen revealed in an April 2021 interview that she and Bourla privately communicated for several weeks while negotiating a contract for nearly 2 billion vaccine doses.
A journalist’s public information request for the texts was later shot down, with the commission claiming it could not find the messages in question.
The denial triggered a rebuke from the European ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, who followed up with an investigation last year and blasted EU officials over poor administration and a lack of transparency, saying that “no attempt was made to identify if any text messages existed.” The ombudsman then urged the commission to “search again,” asking it to broaden its criteria in a way that might actually locate the records.
The commission doubled down in its latest response to O’Reilly, however, insisting it had handled the matter properly and made every effort to find the texts. It reiterated that it does not register material that contains no “important information,” and that such documents “are not kept, and, as a consequence, are not in the possession of the institution.”
“The European Commission is of the opinion that it has not treated this request in a ‘narrow way’ and that the search and handling of documents for the purpose of public requests for access to documents... is justified and follows the established practice,” the statement said.
The EU governing body added that it intends to “issue further guidance on modern communication tools” in hopes of avoiding similar mix-ups in the future, but nonetheless held that its actions were “in line with the applicable legislation and the relevant case law on access to documents.”
The office of the ombudsman, which published the commission’s letter on Wednesday, declared that the response was “problematic on several points,” and noted that a “full analysis” of the case would follow in the coming weeks.
The controversy over the missing texts is not the first dispute regarding a lack of transparency in the EU’s vaccine dealings. The commission was sued in April by several MEPs, who claimed the negotiations were overly secretive. Though contracts were eventually published, they were heavily redacted in a way that “made it impossible to understand the content of the agreements,” the lawmakers alleged, insisting secrecy “has no place in public agreements with pharmaceutical companies.”