Interview of Tilly Metz, Member of the European Parliament and member of the Committee for the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI). She was the shadow rapporteur to the European Parliament report on the EU pharma strategy. She is also one of the MEPs that submitted an application to the ECJ on Covid-19 vaccine contracts transparency.
1. Together with a few of your colleagues, you submitted an application to the European Court of Justice claiming the right to access to information after the European Commission’s refusal to provide transparent access to the COVID-19 vaccine contracts. Could you tell us more about your battle for transparency and why you decided to submit this application to the Court? Why do you believe it is important to have these documents publicly available?
The fight for more transparency in policy making is one of the core priorities of the work of the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament. So at the beginning of the pandemic, it was quite natural that we started asking for transparency, not only on the vaccine contracts but also on the clinical data of the treatments being assessed and on the decision making process. It is clear that transparency creates trust, and that the Political institutions should be irreproachable in that regard, especially in an era of fake news and misinformation. I would even add that it was especially important at the beginning of the pandemic when a lot of fear-driven information was circulating. So we repeatedly asked to see the COVID-19 vaccines contracts. As Members of the European Parliament, it is our role to oversee the use of public money and ensure the interest of citizens is well represented. That is the balance of powers. But as our right was denied, we decided with my colleagues that we would go through all the necessary legal steps to obtain the COVID-19 vaccines contracts. Now it is important that these documents are being made public for three main reasons. First, public decision making should always be transparent. Secondly, it is deeply important that citizens can trust EU actions and this can only happen when transparency is the rule, otherwise some anti-EU parties can always blame any wrong decision on the EU even if it is not true. And last but not least, it is high time for the EU to show that companies does not make the rules when public money is spent. Pharma companies cannot have the final say in this. At this point I would even say that we value the sharing of information as much as the symbolic gesture that would be the publication of the contracts for democracy.
2. The European Commission stated several times it wanted COVID-19 vaccines to be considered global public goods. Do you believe this commitment was followed by concrete actions to make it a reality? What are the key lessons we learned from the pandemic when it comes to ensuring equitable access to medical tools?
The EU partially made these words a reality by donating some doses but, in my opinion, the EU could and should have done so much more. From the start, and considering past experiences during health crisis, the EU should have conditioned in the COVID-19 vaccine contracts the buying of vaccines to the transfer of know-how to the participation to global organisations such as COVAX or the ACT-Accelerator that were supposed to pool international.
What we clearly understood in this pandemic is that intellectual property rights are strong obstacles to timely access to treatments and vaccines. This needs to change and it was recently recognized in a resolution voted at the U.N. Human Rights Council on access to medicines. I hope the future global pandemic treaty will reflect this and that change will happen. It always comes down to the same thing: how do you foster innovation but ensure at the same time equal and timely access to healthcare. At the moment, the balance does not fall on the side of citizens. So we need to solve this, find the right balance and work on the right kind of incentives.
3. Do you think that there is room in the upcoming revision of the pharmaceutical legislation to make progress on transparency and increased access to medicines for all? What would you like to see changed in this revision?
I hope there will be room for increase of transparency in access to medicines. Everything goes together: transparency, pricing and access. So by increasing transparency, the balance of power is already better and you are improving access. So I definitely hope to see some progressive proposals from the Commission to that end. For example, it would be interesting to know what are the costs of research for a treatment, at least an estimation, to design the right incentives, otherwise, we put all our trust in what companies are willing to divulge. And knowing that their first priority is not towards citizens but to their shareholders, I believe there is a problem in this system.