HomeEconomyAlbert, Ursula & Heiko: The dangerous relationship between the President of the European Commission and the CEO of Pfizer
Albert, Ursula & Heiko: The dangerous relationship between the President of the European Commission and the CEO of Pfizer
Posted On 25/04/2022
In March 1999, the Committee of Independent Experts set up following a vote by the European Parliament to “examine the way in which the Commission identifies and deals with cases of fraud, mismanagement and nepotism, including a thorough examination of the Commission’s practices in awarding all financial contracts” issued its report. It pointed the finger at Commissioner Edith Cresson’s granting of a contract of convenience to her doctor friend for a total amount of about 5.5 million Belgian francs, or 137,500 euros. Two days later, the entire Santer Commission resigned.
In April 2021, the New York Times revealed that Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, was negotiating directly with Albert Bourla, the CEO of Pfizer, by means of phone calls and text messages. And indeed, the following month, the Commission announced a mega-contract with the alliance of German BioNTech and US Pfizer to purchase 900 million doses of the vaccine between the end of 2021 and 2023, with an option for an additional 900 million doses. To date, the European Commission has signed contracts with seven pharmaceutical companies or groups for a total of 4.575 billion potential doses, or ten doses per capita for all ages . The Pfizer/BioNTech contract of May 2021 is worth €35 billion. Compared to the previous autumn’s contracts, the price per dose has increased from 15.50 to 19.50 euros. In view of the staggering 1.8 billion doses ordered and the discounts and economies of scale that would normally result, this is a surprising result.
The figures are staggering, and it is useful to compare the size of the contract negotiated by the European Commission (€35 billion) with the explosive sales (22 billion) for the year 2021. As the table produced by the “statista” website based on the annual results published by Pfizer on 8 February 2022 clearly illustrates, these results are dramatically higher than in previous years. In addition, 36 billion of the total turnover was generated by covid treatments. In short, it is the European taxpayer who is financing the bulk of the profits of Pfizer’s shareholders and executives (and, to a lesser extent, its “junior” partner BioNTech).
Such profits represent seven times the deficit of the “Covax” programme, which, led by Gavi, is supposed to extend the vaccination against HIV to the whole world. According to an investigation by the British daily The Independent, while Pfizer has sold its doses at the “cost price” of 5.90 euros to African Union countries, the actual cost price may not be more than 90 cents. Even assuming that the cost price is really 5.90 euros, it seems difficult to justify the 13.60 euro mark-up on the 19.50 euro selling price. This staggering profit margin of 230% for the May 2021 mega-contract alone results in a net profit of €24.48 billion on the backs of the European taxpayer.
As with previous contracts, despite repeated requests, the European Commission has taken refuge behind so-called ‘business secrecy’ to refuse to publish this contract other than in a heavily redacted version. 7] Even the European Parliament’s Committee on Budgetary Control has not been able to see the original version, making effective control impossible. This is a blatant violation of the spirit and the letter of the duty of control of the European budget by the Parliament, the only directly elected European institution whose members are supposed to represent the citizens.
Normally, the negotiations would have been conducted by a team led by Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides. Intrigued by the unorthodox methods revealed by the New York Times, an Austrian journalist questioned the Commission about the content of the messages exchanged between President von der Leyen and CEO Bourla. In doing so, Alexander Fanta relied on a 2001 EU regulation which states that every European citizen should have access to information in the “widest possible way”. However, in response to his request, only a handful of previously published documents were sent to him. Fanta then turned to Emily O’Reilly, the EU Ombudsman, who, after conducting her internal investigation, ruled on the case in January 2022. 8] Breaking with the usually hushed tone of official communications, the former Irish journalist was highly critical of the way in which the request for access to the European Commission President’s text messages was handled. She calls it a case of “maladministration” and says: “While not all text messages need to be recorded, those that clearly fall within the scope of EU transparency legislation and are of unquestionable relevance should be. It is not possible to argue otherwise (…). It is the content of the document that matters, not the medium or form. If the text messages concern EU policies and decisions, they should be treated as EU documents. The Ombudsman has asked the Commission to provide a detailed response by 26 April 2022.
No doubt the Commission will provide a formal response by the due date in order to respect the formalities. However, the Ombudsman can only make recommendations and has no direct power. In the absence of sustained political, media or citizen pressure, it is likely that the Commission will stick to its general line of considering text messages as “ephemeral documents” (sic) which would not contain, “as a matter of principle (re-sic), important information concerning a matter relating to the policies, activities and decisions of the Commission”.
Beyond this obstruction in principle, it seems necessary to look at the case of President von der Leyen. Like her predecessors, she maintains very close relations with the business community. In addition to the emblematic case of Jacques Santer and Jean-Claude Juncker, former prime ministers of the tax haven of Luxembourg, famous for its tax exemptions in favour of multinationals, it should be remembered that Romano Prodi was a member of the Bilderberg Group’s steering committee and that José Manuel Barroso was hired by the American investment bank Goldman Sachs shortly after his ten years at the head of the European executive. It is also worth noting that the same Barroso was appointed in September 2020 as Chairman of the Board of Gavi, which brings together partners such as the WHO, the World Bank, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the major pharmaceutical multinationals in a “Vaccine Alliance”.
Ursula von der Leyen’s close ties to private interest groups came to light when she was Minister of Defence in Angela Merkel’s government. Having appointed Katrin Suder, the former head of the German subsidiary of McKinsey, as Secretary of State for Armaments, she used the services of consulting firms, including McKinsey, without a call for tenders, for a total of 200 million euros in three years. Alerted by the Court of Auditors, the Bundestag set up a parliamentary committee of enquiry, which obtained the seizure of the minister’s two professional mobile phones. Unfortunately, their memories had been ‘accidentally’ erased. Ursula von der Leyen tried to reassure the committee members that there were ‘no important messages’ (sic). In short, the ‘ephemeral’ nature of her text messages seems to have been established long ago!
The German press noted that David von der Leyen, one of the Commission President’s sons, worked for McKinsey between 2015 and 2019, i.e. at the time when his mother was Minister of Defence and had hired Katrin Suder as Secretary of State. With a turnover of more than 10 billion dollars – according to Forbes’ estimate – present in 65 countries, the heavyweight role of this firm, which sells or ‘offers’ its advice to both the private and the public sector, has proved to be decisive in the management of the covid pandemic. In Belgium, as in France and many other Western countries, the ministries of health used its services to help define and implement their vaccine strategies. To use the title of a recent book on the subject, we can speak of a real “infiltration” of public administrations. The conclusions of the French Senate’s enquiry into the influence of consultancies on public policy, which were made public on 17 March 2022, are scathing: they unambiguously denounce a “tentacular and opaque phenomenon” extending to “entire areas of public policy” and influencing, in a manner that is as opaque as ever, decisions that fall within the remit of politicians12 . It should also be noted that several McKinsey France executives advised candidate Emmanuel Macron on a pro bono basis to “push” his 2017 presidential election campaign.
This is not only true for national administrations, but also at the European level. As early as March 2020, McKinsey wrote to Commissioner Kyriakides proposing “to send a volunteer crisis response team into the relevant structure of the EU institutions”. While continuing to advise its Big Pharma clients, McKinsey could thus gain access to the heart of the European policy coordination process, all in a highly opaque manner, since offering its services on a pro bono basis allowed it to avoid any public tendering. Indeed, the Commission refused to disclose most of the documents relating to McKinsey’s pro bono activities.
McKinsey’s “generosity” to the European Commission is stinging when one considers that the same firm has been known to encourage several pharmaceutical companies to “push” their painkillers, including by increasing the dosage of these opioid products, which has contributed to the dramatic addiction of millions of Americans. To get the lawsuit dropped, McKinsey was forced in February 2021 to pay 5% of its revenue, or more than 18 million fine to the US Securities and Exchange Commission in a case of insider trading.
Nicknamed ‘the Firm’ by its own managers and employees, McKinsey has a policy of networking and influence that is reminiscent of certain mafia practices – an analogy that should not be considered defamatory given the revelations of some of its practices by the American justice system. Both a consultancy and an investment fund, at the confluence of the worlds of politics, administration and business, the ‘Firm’ is very effective in its ability to animate networks and establish cross-interests, on a national, European and international scale. David von der Leyen is not unique among its influence techniques, as McKinsey does not shy away from hiring other offspring of political leaders. For example, Victor Fabius, son of the former French Prime Minister and current President of the Constitutional Council. It will be recalled that he endorsed, to the great surprise and no less great fury of the defenders of public liberties, most of the provisions of the ‘vaccine pass’ imposed by Macron. In short, McKinsey plays a key role in most Western countries in a number of commercial issues, including the anti-vaccine campaign.
In the von der Leyen family, in addition to the son David “McKinsey”, there is the husband Heiko “Orgenesis”. According to an in-depth investigation by the Romanian journalist Adrian Onciu, Dr. Heiko von der Leyen, husband of the President of the European Commission, who until then had been running a clinic in Hanover, was recruited in December 2020 as “Medical Director” of the pharmaceutical company Orgenesis, which is based in New York State, just like Pfizer. According to Adrian Onciu, by crossing the Atlantic from Hanover to New York, his annual salary would have risen from around 300,000 euros to more than a million dollars, according to the usual American scale for such positions. In Onciu’s view, this should probably be added to any ‘performance bonuses’ or other bonuses that are given to senior managers when business is good. In the current pandemic period, business is booming. Orgenesis is a biotech company developing cell and gene therapies using messenger RNA technology. In May 2020, the company announced the launch of its new vaccine platform targeting the covid virus. 16] When Dr von der Leyen joins the Orgenesis board, the European Commission has just concluded a series of contracts with pharmaceutical companies between August and November 2020, including two with Pfizer/BioNTech. 17] Orgenesis has a close relationship with Pfizer, both in terms of genetic therapies based on messenger RNA and through the cross-shareholdings of their respective shareholdings, foremost among which is the investment fund Vanguard, which since March 2021 has also controlled BlackRock, another giant investment fund, whose systemic influence has been demonstrated by several surveys, not only with investors but also with managers and shareholders in the private sector and with political decision-makers. Accelerated during the pandemic, these cross-interests are set against a backdrop of business dealings and collusion of interests that have been repeatedly exposed by the US justice system. Over the years, 40 cases of misconduct have been brought against Pfizer, which has paid a total of $6.171 billion in fines, with six cases still under review.19 In a telling example of the collusion between politics and Pfizer, former French minister Jérôme Cahuzac testified at his trial that the illegal account he opened in Switzerland was funded by the pharmaceutical company.
With such a record, it is essential not only to publish all the text messages and exchanges between European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Albert Bourla, but also to reveal the total amount of emoluments, bonuses and other benefits received by her husband Heiko since he was recruited by the company Orgenesis. In 1999, the Santer Commission had to resign because of an employment contract of convenience.
Let us remember that, in the European institutional architecture, the Commission is supposed to be, not the water-carrier of influence groups and private interests, but the guardian of the Treaties, the guarantor of the rule of law and the general interest of European citizens. As such, it must demonstrate exemplary probity. Is it therefore conceivable that President von der Leyen and the European Commission as a whole could avoid being held to account for contracts involving tens of billions of public money with a multinational company with a sulphurous commercial reputation? As Michel Audiard reminds us, “Justice is like the Holy Virgin. If she doesn’t appear from time to time, doubt is bound to creep in.
The Expressis-Verbis editorial team would like to thank Alexandre Penasse for allowing us to publish this important article in his bi-monthly journal KAIROS, an “anti-productivist journal for a decent society.” If you enjoyed this article in Issue 54 of this journal, please consider the importance of supporting free, critical journalism without conflicts of interest in subscribing to his journal.
As usual, we thank the original authors for making their articles available by translating them. The French version is therefore translated into German and English by Expressis-Verbis.
 : See in this respect the very detailed article by Charles-Maxence Layet entitled « Profits outranciers, manigances et délits d’initiés : l’emprise mondiale du cabinet McKinsey », published in the n°138, janvier-février 2022, of Nexus magazine