European investigators take over the investigation into the messages of von der Leyen and the head of Pfizer

Von der Leyen at Pfizer / Photo EPA-EFE/JOHN THYS / POOL

European prosecutors are investigating potential crimes in connection with negotiations on the procurement of coronavirus vaccines between European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and the CEO of Pfizer, a spokesman for the prosecution in Liege confirmed.

European Public Prosecutor's Office (EPPO) investigators took over the investigation from Belgian prosecutors in recent months, who were investigating von der Leyen for "interference in public affairs, deletion of text messages, corruption and conflict of interest," according to legal documents seen by Politico and the statements of the spokesperson of the prosecutor's office in Liège. Although EPPO prosecutors are investigating potential crimes, no one has yet been charged in connection with the case.

The investigation was initially opened by Belgian authorities in the city of Liège in early 2023 following a criminal complaint filed by local lobbyist Frederic Baldan. It was later joined by the Hungarian and Polish governments, although the latter is in the process of withdrawing its appeal following the election victory of the pro-European government led by Donald Tusk, a Polish government spokesman told Politico.

Baldan's complaint centered on an alleged exchange of text messages between von der Leyen and Pfizer chief Albert Burla ahead of the EU's largest vaccine deal at the height of the pandemic, in an affair dubbed "Pfizergate."

The New York Times, which first revealed that the exchange took place while EC leaders and Pfizer were negotiating the terms of the deal, launched a parallel lawsuit against the Commission after it refused to disclose the content of the messages despite a request for access to documents.

The news that the EPPO is now investigating the case further underlines the Commission President's role in the vaccine megadeal, which is estimated to be worth more than €20 billion. The EPPO conducts pan-European investigations into financial crime and could theoretically seize mobile phones and other relevant material from the Commission's offices or in other countries in Europe, such as Germany, where von der Leyen comes from.

This development of events comes at a delicate moment for the head of the EU, because the European elections are coming soon, and in Brussels it is expected that Von der Leyen will receive a second term at the head of the European Commission.

The deal, agreed at the height of the pandemic in 2021, was initially seen as a triumph for von der Leyen. But the sheer amount of vaccine bought has since caused consternation, with Politivo revealing at the end of last year that a dose of vaccine worth at least €4 billion had failed. Since then, the vaccine deal with Pfizer has been negotiated under different terms.

Transparency activists and some political opponents have tried to pressure the Commission to talk about the case, but von der Leyen has so far avoided talking about it. In response to a direct question from Politico about the missing text messages, von der Leyen said: “Everything that needs to be said about it has been said. We will wait for the results."

In 2022, the EPPO announced it was looking more broadly at EU vaccine procurement, but this is the first time the office has been specifically linked to Pfizergate.

The case now being heard by the EPPO brings together several different legal, political and financial threads – and is intertwined with lawsuits brought by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer against Hungary and Poland.

Last year, Baldan, a 36-year-old Belgian lobbyist with ties to the vaccine-skeptic group Bon Sens, filed criminal charges in Belgium over von der Leyen's role in vaccine negotiations with Pfizer for what he claimed was "interference in public functions. destruction of SMS messages, corruption and conflict of interest," states the legal information presented by his lawyer.

The addition of European governments to his lawsuit lends weight to what might otherwise be considered a personal showdown. Hungary, led by Viktor Orbán, a staunch opponent of von der Leyen, also complained about the commission president's role in the vaccine talks with Pfizer, said two sources familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. .

Poland filed its own complaint last November, a Polish government spokesman confirmed. However, after Tusk's election in December, "the new government is working to withdraw Poland from these proceedings," the spokesman said.

Details of the case are not public, but insiders say that while the complaint filed by Hungary is different from Baldan's, it centers on the same exchange of text messages. Poland's appeal was along the same lines, two people familiar with the details of the case said.

Pfizer has also sued Hungary and Poland for non-payment of vaccine doses after halting shipments, citing oversupply and financial pressure from the war in Ukraine. An official representative of the European Commission stated that the Commission has no knowledge of possible procedures except for newspaper articles.

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