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European prosecutors take over Belgian probe into Pfizergate

Detectives are investigating private text messages between the President of the European Commission and the CEO of Pfizer.

Top European prosecutors are investigating allegations of criminal wrongdoing in connection with vaccine negotiations between European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and the CEO of Pfizer, according to a spokesperson from the Liège prosecutor's office.

 

Investigators from the European Public Prosecutor's Office (EPPO) have in recent months taken over from Belgian prosecutors investigating von der Leyen over "interference in public functions, destruction of SMS, corruption and conflict of interest," according to legal documents seen by POLITICO and a spokesperson from the Liège prosecutor's office. While EPPO’s prosecutors are investigating alleged criminal offenses, no one has yet been charged in connection with the case.

 

The probe was originally opened by Belgian judicial authorities in the city of Liège in early 2023 after a criminal complaint lodged by local lobbyist Frédéric Baldan. He was later joined by the Hungarian and Polish governments — although the latter is in the process of withdrawing its complaint after the election win by a pro-EU government led by Donald Tusk, a Polish government spokesperson said.  

 

Baldan’s complaint centered around an alleged exchange of text messages between von der Leyen and Pfizer boss Albert Bourla in the run-up to the EU’s biggest vaccine deal at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, in an affair dubbed “Pfizergate.”

 

The New York Times, which first revealed that the exchange had taken place as the two leaders hashed out the terms of the deal, has launched a parallel lawsuit against the Commission after it refused to disclose the content of the messages following an access to documents request.  

 

News that EPPO is now investigating the case risks putting further scrutiny on the Commission president's role in the mega vaccine deal, which had an estimated value of over €20 billion. EPPO leads pan-European investigations into financial crimes, and in theory could seize phones and other relevant material from Commission offices or in other countries in Europe such as von der Leyen's native Germany. 

 

The development comes at a delicate moment for the EU’s chief, as she navigates the transition to what Brussels observers expect will be a second term at the head of the Berlaymont. 

 

The Commission has so far refused to reveal the content of the text messages, or even confirm their existence.

 

The deal, negotiated at the height of the pandemic in 2021, was originally seen as a triumph for von der Leyen. But the sheer amount of vaccines purchased has since raised eyebrows, revealing late last year that there were at least €4 billion worth of wasted doses. The vaccine contract with Pfizer has since been renegotiated. 

 

Transparency campaigners and some political opponents have sought to put pressure on the Commission to discuss the case, but von der Leyen has so far avoided addressing it. In a reply to a direct question about missing text messages, von der Leyen said:

 

“Everything necessary about that has been said and exchanged. And we will wait for the results.” 

 

In 2022, EPPO announced it was looking into the EU’s vaccine procurement more generally, but this is the first time that the office has been linked with Pfizergate explicitly.

 

Trading legal barbs 

The case now being looked at by EPPO brings together several different legal, political and financial strands — and it intersects with lawsuits that pharmaceutical giant Pfizer brought against Hungary and Poland. 

 

Last year, Baldan, a 36-old Belgian lobbyist with ties to vaccine-skeptic group Bon Sens, lodged a criminal complaint in Belgium in connection to von der Leyen’s role in the vaccine negotiations with Pfizer over what he alleges were acts of "interference in public functions, destruction of SMS, corruption and conflict of interest," according to legal information provided by his lawyer. 

 

The addition of European governments to his complaint adds weight to what might otherwise have been seen as a personal crusade. Hungary, led by Viktor Orbán, a steadfast opponent of von der Leyen, also filed a complaint in connection to the Commission president’s role in vaccine negotiations with Pfizer, according to two insiders with knowledge of the case, speaking on condition of anonymity because of its sensitivity. 

 

Poland lodged its own complaint last November, a Polish government spokesperson confirmed. However, following the election of Tusk in December, “the new government is working [to] withdraw Poland from these proceedings,” the spokesperson said. 

 

The details of the case are not public but the insiders said that while the complaint brought by Hungary is distinct from Baldan’s, it centers on the same text message exchange. Poland’s complaint was along the same lines, the two people familiar with the details of the case said.

 

Both Hungary and Poland are also being sued by Pfizer over missing payments for vaccine doses after stopping deliveries, citing oversupply and the financial strain of the Ukraine war.    

 

A European Commission official said the Commission had no knowledge about possible proceedings other than from press articles. The Hungarian government didn't reply to a request for comment. Pfizer and EPPO declined to comment.

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