Prosecutor confirms probe into Europe's COVID-19 vaccine purchasing

Amid intense public scrutiny of the European Commission's large deal to purchase Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine doses, prosecutors there appear to be doing some digging of their own.

The European Public Prosecutor's Office (EPPO) has confirmed that it has an “ongoing investigation” into the acquisition of COVID-19 vaccines in the EU. The “exceptional confirmation” comes after “extremely high” public interest in the issue, the EPPO’s statement said. The prosecutor didn't name any vaccine company in its brief statement.

The intense public interest likely refers to the situation around the Pfizer COVID-19 supply deal in Europe. In recent weeks, some EU officials have pressed for answers about how authorities ended up striking a massive supply deal with the drugmaker and its partner BioNTech for up to 1.8 billion doses.

Last week at a European Parliament hearing, a Pfizer executive who participated in vaccine contract negotiations with the European Commission categorically denied allegations that the company's CEO, Albert Bourla, Ph.D., negotiated the contract through text messages. The executive was Janine Small, the company’s president of international developed markets.

Such vaccine negotations are typically too detailed and involve too many parties to be conducted via text messages, Small noted.

At the hearing, Small was sitting in for Bourla, who was originally slated to testify before the parliament’s COVID-19 committee before he pulled out.

The hearing came a few weeks after a European Court of Auditors report found that a joint negotation team was not involved in striking the Pfizer vaccine deal. That was a violation of a previously agreed protocol, the Court of Auditors said.

What's more, Europe's contract for the Pfizer doses was the biggest COVID-19 contract signed by the bloc. Those doses will dominate the EU’s vaccine portfolio until the end of 2023, the Court of Auditors said.

The EPPO concluded its statement by noting that no further details will be made public at this stage of the investigation.