BRUSSELS - The European Ombudsman is investigating the secrecy with which the European Union's executive is handling COVID-19 vaccine supply contracts, it said on Friday.
The EU has spent about 2.5 billion euros ($3 billion) on downpayments to secure nearly 2.3 billion doses of COVID-19 candidates and approved vaccines from six companies. The pricing, delivery terms and other key clauses are confidential.
"We have just opened an inquiry into the Commission's refusal to give public access to documents concerning the purchase of vaccines against COVID-19," a spokeswoman for the EU Ombudsman said.
The bloc's Commission, which co-leads talks with vaccine makers along with representatives from EU states, has said that confidentiality is important to allow the EU to strike better deals with companies. The Commission was not immediately available for comment on the investigation.
Corporate Europe Observatory, a campaign group, had asked for access to the contract signed with AstraZeneca, the first sealed by the EU, and to documents linked to vaccine negotiations. The Commission refused the first request and has not decided about the second, the ombudsman said.
"Given the significant public interest in this matter, I would ask the Commission to issue a confirmatory decision on both access requests as soon as possible and at the latest by 11 February 2021," the Ombudsman wrote in a letter to the EU executive on Friday.
Any EU citizen may appeal to the Ombudsman to investigate an EU institution on the grounds of maladministration. Requests to disclose documents can be rebuffed by EU institutions if the publication of some information is considered against public interest.
Earlier this month, the Commission disclosed a redacted version of its COVID-19 vaccine contract with German biotech firm CureVac, after pressure from EU lawmakers.