Amid scrutiny around Europe's vaccine purchase, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla pulls out of committee hearing

Following an audit report into the EU's COVID-19 vaccine procurement strategy, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, Ph.D., was previously due to testify before the European Parliament’s COVID-19 committee Oct. 10. Now, the leader of the pharma giant has pulled out of the appointment, Politico reports.

The parliament’s COVID-19 committee is meeting with key officials involved in the vaccine purchasing process in hopes of gathering information about how best to respond to future pandemics. So far, pharma executives who have addressed the committee include Moderna’s CEO Stéphane Bancel and senior execs from AstraZeneca and Sanofi, according to Politico.

The committee chair, Belgian member of parliament Kathleen Van Brempt, told the news outlet that she “deeply regrets” Bourla's decision not to attend the forthcoming hearing. After a recent visit to BioNTech’s headquarters, Van Brempt said in a statement that she looked forward to discussions with other CEOs, including Bourla.

Bourla was expected to face questions and address the scrutiny surrounding the negotiations for Europe’s third vaccine contract with Pfizer, signed in May and covering an initial 900 million doses for delivery in 2022 and 2023. It was the biggest COVID-19 contract signed by the European Commission (EC), the Court of Auditors said in its September report.

But the deal left the audit court with concerns. The group found that it was the “only contract for which the [joint negotiation team] was not involved in this stage of negotiations, contrary to the Commission decision on procuring COVID-19 vaccines,” the court said. Further, the commission refused to turn over records and details of the Pfizer discussions.

Early talks were held by EC President Ursula von der Leyen, instead of the EC’s Vaccine Steering Board, comprised of representatives from 27 EU member states, which had agreed to plan a meeting with the EU and “national scientific advisors” for 2022’s vaccine strategy. That meeting never happened, the audit court reported.

After The New York Times reported von der Leyen and Bourla had been exchanging text messages leading up to the vaccine purchase agreement, the audit court in its report urged the EC to search for “relevant text messages” and “assess whether public access can be granted to them.”

Bourla’s cancelation comes two weeks after the CEO tested positive for COVID-19 for the second time since his first diagnosis in mid-August. The company told Fierce Pharma in an emailed statement that Janine Small, president of international development markets at Pfizer, will attend the hearing in Bourla’s place and “has been identified as best placed to support the committee in meeting their objectives."

"Janine held the role of Regional President of Pfizer Vaccines in the International Developed Markets (IDM) throughout 2020 and thus has a deep knowledge of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine development process through to its historic launch in the EU," a Pfizer spokesperson said via email.