Big Pharma’s lobbying firepower in Brussels: at least €36 million a year (and likely far more)
Big Pharma is currently waging a fierce lobbying battle to protect its monopoly patent rights for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. While Corporate Europe Observatory broadly outlines the sector's lobby spending, this is likely to be an underestimate of Big Pharma's true firepower; and up-to-date lobbying information and details are hard to come by. Weak EU lobby transparency rules are hampering the public scrutiny that is more needed than ever now during the pandemic.
While billions in low-income countries have no prospect of seeing a COVID-19 vaccine any time soon, rich countries are stockpiling them. At the same time, Big Pharma vaccine producers have refrained from allowing producers in the Global South to manufacture their vaccines to any significant extent. This cocktail has led to a global controversy over intellectual property rights and patents. Pressure is mounting to temporarily suspend patents on the vaccines, but Big Pharma lobbyists in Washington and Brussels are resisting this. EU lobby transparency rules, however, remain weak, enabling Big Pharma to keep its Brussels lobbying in these crucial weeks away from public scrutiny.
June 2021 is a crucial month for the proposed TRIPS waiver, a temporary global easing of intellectual property rights on COVID19 vaccines and treatments to enable them to be produced on a far larger scale. On June 7-8, MEPs will decide the European Parliament’s position in a plenary vote, and on June 9-10 the European Commission will represent the EU at the WTO’s TRIPS Council meeting in Geneva to decide whether or not to start negotiations on the waiver. Also the summit of the G7 countries on June 11-13 in London will be an important moment for the TRIPS waiver debate.
The debate about the TRIPS waiver, first proposed by South Africa and India in October 2020, entered a completely new phase in early May 2021 when US President Biden acted on his election campaign promise and backed the proposal. SidenoteBiden announced support for a waiver of IP on vaccines but didn’t mention medicines or test equipment which are part of the proposal by the governments of South Africa and India. That meant the EU, so far a staunch opponent, was suddenly the biggest remaining obstacle for the start of negotiations. EU leaders such as President of the Commission Ursula Von der Leyen, and President of the Council Charles Michel have expressed skepticism and parroted pharma lobby talking points, but the public pressure for change is unprecedented. Only the richest countries currently have access to sufficient vaccines for the large-scale vaccination programs required, and the pandemic is worsening in most of the world, with India being a tragic example. The inadequate supply of vaccines (meaning large parts of the world will only be vaccinated in 2023) and the refusal by pharmaceutical companies to enter voluntary licensing agreements with manufacturers in the global south, makes the moral imperative for a TRIPS waiver and technology-sharing overwhelming.
Despite this, Big Pharma maintains its vehement opposition to any easing of patents on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. Pharma lobby group EFPIA (European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations), in a closed-door meeting with the Commission in December 2020, called the proposed TRIPS waiver “an extreme measure for an unidentified problem.” Later it slammed Biden’s support for the waiver as “short-sighted and ineffectual". In a time of massive windfall pandemic profits, Big Pharma is particularly keen to defend its patent model.
EU decision-makers will in the coming weeks face massive lobbying pressure to (continue to) side with Big Pharma.
As such, in the run-up to the crucial decisions to be made in June 2021, Big Pharma is likely to mobilise all its lobbying resources to avoid the EU departing from its current anti-waiver position. It's telling that, as The Intercept recently reported, there has been massive pharma lobby spending in Washington DC in the first quarter of this year as part of the effort to block generic COVID-19 vaccines, according to the US lobby register. Corporate Europe Observatory took a closer look at the lobbying firepower of the pharmaceutical industry in EU capital Brussels – and found an industry that’s investing enormous amounts of money on influencing EU decision-making. EU decision-makers will in the coming weeks face massive lobbying pressure to (continue to) side with Big Pharma. However, EU lobby transparency failures mean the picture we are able to paint of the current state of Big Pharma lobbying is severely lacking.
Pharma lobbying firepower
Based on the annual lobbying disclosure updates submitted to the EU’s Transparency Register:
Over 40 pharmaceutical corporations report spending a combined up to €25.3 million per year on lobbying. SidenotePharma companies report spending between €20.7 million and €25.3 million on EU lobbying per year.
Big Pharma lobby groups spent an additional up to €10.7 million per year. SidenotePharma lobby groups report spending between €8 million – €10.7 million on EU lobbying per year.
Big Pharma spends up to €14.9 million per year SidenoteBig Pharma spends between €8.8 million and €14.9 million per year on lobby consultancies assisting them in their EU lobbying. on lobby consultancies in Brussels to influence EU decision-making.
On that last point, the Transparency Register's 'Implementing Guidelines' instructs companies to include spending on lobby consultancies in the total amount of lobby spending declared. SidenoteSee 'Implementing Guidelines', 2.14.2. Costs attributable to activities covered by the Register: 5. Outsourced activity costs: fees for consultants and subcontractors for relevant activities. Even if a consultant working on contract makes a separate declaration in the Register, registrants must still include these fees in their own financial declaration." It is clear that not all companies actually do this, but presumably many do, so adding up spending by companies, lobby groups, and consultancies would result in some double-counting.
A conservative estimate of total annual EU lobby spending by Big Pharma is therefore €36 million per year.
Pharma companies and lobby groups report employing a whopping 290 lobbyists (an estimated 104.75 full-time lobby jobs), and this figure does not include the ‘hired gun’ lobbyists at lobby consultancies.
EFPIA, Big Pharma's main lobby group in Europe, increased its lobby spending by around 20 per cent in pandemic year 2020 compared to the previous year (up to €5.5 million compared to €4.6 million in 2019), involving 25 lobbyists. Most pharmaceutical companies report unchanged lobby spending and some even report a slight reduction in lobby spending a bit. But as numerous companies have not yet reported their 2020 lobby spending, it is premature to draw conclusions about how the pandemic has impacted lobby spending.
It is crystal clear that Big Pharma continues to dramatically outnumber and outspend civil society actors working on public health or medicines issues. For instance Corporate Europe Observatory's April 2015 report 'Policy prescriptions: the firepower of the EU pharmaceutical lobby and implications for public health' showed Big Pharma spent nearly 15 times more than civil society groups working on public health and access to medicines. Since then, while civil society spending has increased, Big Pharma continues to dramatically outspend it with an estimated EU lobbying budget at least five times larger than civil society, SidenoteA look at the lobby spending currently reported by the NGOs covered in the 2015 report shows an increase in their lobby spending from €2.7 million in 2014 to €4.9 million in 2020. Our updated search of the Transparency Register identified three other NGOs now working on pharmaceuticals and medicines policy, bringing the total lobby spending to €6,8 million. This figure includes NGOs like EPHA and BEUC, for whom pharmaceuticals and medicines policy is not the primary focus, so including their full lobby spending figures actually means strongly over-estimating the civil society firepower on these issues. In reality Big Pharma’s lobby spending is likely to be not just five times more than other interests, but a far bigger factor. Sidenote
Big Pharma continues to dramatically outspend civil society with an estimated EU lobbying budget at least five times larger than civil society
Civil society is not just outnumbered and outspent in terms of EU lobbying on health issues: we must also note the privileged access that Big Pharma enjoys at the top levels of the European Commission. Corporate Europe Observatory's May 2021 investigation “The Commission's pharma echo chamber” shows that only those who do not question Big Pharma’s monopolies on patents seem to be allowed in. While mega-philanthropist Bill Gates and the pro-patent lobby are a powerful force influencing the EU’s response, proponents of technology-sharing to tackle the pandemic face closed doors. Figures highlighted by Deutsche Welle showed an extreme imbalance between opponents and proponents of the vaccine patents waiver: 140 meetings with pharma companies and their associations, 18 meetings with generic companies, and only one meeting with pro-waiver groups.
Hired gun lobbyists
The role of consultancies in pharma lobbying is also considerable. There are several hundred lobby consultancies in Brussels, and over 65 firms have lobbyists with permanent access passes to the European Parliament. We found 34 lobby consultancies in the Transparency Register reporting that they work for Big Pharma:
Biggest pharma lobby spender EFPIA spends up to €660,000 per year on no less than 8 lobby consultancy firms (Acumen, Hague Corporate Affairs, Incisive Health, Interel, Porter Novelli, RRP Group, Rud Pedersen PA, and ZN).
Vaccine producer Moderna does not have its own Brussels office and seems to rely heavily on FTI Consulting for its EU lobbying.
Johnson & Johnson hired 7 lobby consultancies for an amount of up to €650,000 euro. SidenoteBetween €320,000 and €650,000.
Pfizer reports spending between €800,000 and €900,000 per year on its EU lobbying. The company has a Brussels lobbying office and four lobbyists with permanent European Parliament access passes. But the Transparency Register also shows it hired three lobby consultancies to boost its influence, on which Pfizer spent between €950,000 and €1.2 million per year (Fleishman Hillard, Porter Novelli, and ZN). SidenotePfizer pays these lobby consultancies as follows: Fleishman Hillard (€300,000-€400,000), Porter Novelli (€600,000-€700,000), and ZN (€50,000-€99,999).
With regards to Pfizer, it appears it is under-declaring on its actual lobbying budget given that lobby consultancy fees should be included in the company’s declared lobby spending. The company, moreover, is still declaring its 2019 lobby spending figures, instead of the latest calendar year. Corporate Europe Observatory has therefore alerted the Transparency Register secretariat, suggesting they contact Pfizer to update and correct its lobby spending figure.
Due to the weakness of the requirements of the EU’s lobby transparency register, it is impossible to know on which specific laws and policy issues these consultancies were lobbying on Big Pharma’s behalf. If all goes well this will improve next year as a result of Transparency Register reforms agreed by the EU institutions. SidenoteLobby consultancies and law firms will have to disclose ALL current clients and the issues they have been hired to work on: "Revenue from individual clients for covered activities shall also be listed according to the below grid, accompanied by an indication of the Union legislative proposals, policies or initiatives targeted by the covered activities”. "Any current clients that are not covered by the most recent financial year closed shall be declared on the register separately by name". Detailed implementation rules are currently being drafted. It remains to be seen whether new reporting requirements will be precise enough to reveal lobbying on a specific issue like the TRIPS waiver.
Big Pharma is one of the biggest money-makers for Brussels-based lobby consultancies
Lobby consultancies provide a wide range of lobbying support for their clients. To take just one recent example, Politico’s EU Influence newsletter published a May 2021 interview with former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt. He criticized the European Commission's decision to take AstraZeneca to court over the company’s failure to deliver vaccines on time. Bildt failed to mention that he works for lobby consultancy firm Kreab, which has AstraZeneca as a big-spending client. SidenotePolitico later updated its article, after a lobby watcher highlighted Bildt’s links to AstraZeneca in a tweet.
Big pharma's hired guns
Big Pharma is one of the biggest money-makers for Brussels-based lobby consultancies. Six lobby consultancies earn more than a million euros per year lobbying for big pharma:
Incisive Health: up to €2.1 million (including EFPIA, MSD, Hoffman la Roche, etc.)
Fleishman Hillard: up to €1.4 million (incl Pfizer, Novartis, etc.)
FTI Consulting: up to €1.3 million (Moderna, Bristol-Myers Squibb, AstraZeneca, etc.)
Porter Novelli: up to €1.2 million (Pfizer, Bayer, EFPIA, etc.)
Acumen: up to €1.15 million (MSD, EFPIA, Johnson & Johnson)
The tip of the pharma lobbying iceberg?
Total pharma lobbying spending is likely to be significantly higher than the up to €36 million per year reported in the Transparency Register. Firstly, the Register suffers from unreliable data and there’s a long history of business under-reporting its lobbying spending. And as the example of Pfizer above shows, under-reporting still happens today. Secondly, the Transparency Register also has several blindspots. Pharma funding for think-tanks and patient groups, for instance, remains largely invisible because these organisations are not required to disclose their specific funding sources. Our 2015 report showed that “many patients’ representative groups active at EU level are in fact significantly or even majority funded by the pharma industry”. SidenoteSee page 14 of our report "Policy Prescriptions".
An example of a think-tank promoting the Big Pharma agenda on the TRIPS waiver is the Consumer Choice Center (CCC), a corporate-funded organisation with headquarters in Washington DC, but also active in Brussels. SidenoteThe CCC has close links to the US based rightwing libertarian Students for Liberty (SFL), which is funded by US right-wing plutocrat Charles Koch and hardline neoliberal think tanks.[/sidenote]
Its Transparency Register entry reports it is working on medicines policy, but it provides no information about who funds this work. The CCC website mentions that the organisation has “in the past... received funding from multiple industries such as… healthcare”. The website only mentions examples of current funders, including Japan Tobacco International and British American Tobacco. The group hosts a cross-party group in the European Parliament called 'Innovation, Brands and Intellectual Property – The Future of Europe', a forum with 31 MEP members, mainly from far-right parties.
An Italian news website recently revealed examples of the Consumer Choice Center’s campaigning against the TRIPS waiver. On February 24, ten MEPs (including members of the 'Innovation, Brands and Intellectual Property' cross-party group) sent a letter to Stella Kyriakides, European Commissioner for Health, asking the Commission to firmly oppose the TRIPs waiver. SidenoteMembers of intergroup signing the letter to Kyriakides were Gancia (chair), Adinolfi and Martusciello. Remarkably, the letter from the MEPs contains wording that is identical to that used by the Consumer Choice Center. SidenoteThe following sentence also appears in an article by the CCC: “Safeguarding IP rights is our only chance to make it possible for patients who will one day be diagnosed with incurable diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Cystic Fibrosis, Diabetes, or HIV/AIDS, to ever be cured.” Was the MEP letter written by the CCC or did the MEPs ‘borrow’ from the CCC? The Italian news website reports that on 24 April 2021, MEPs (again including members of the cross-party group) sent a letter to European Commissioners Vestager and Gabriel with the same message.
Another think-tank trying to influence the TRIPS waiver debate is the Aspen Institute Italy, which in March 2021 hosted a closed online seminar on vaccine patents jointly with Farmindustria, the Italian pharmaceutical sector lobby group. Among the speakers – addressing an audience which included MEPs – were Sandra Gallina (the EU’s chief vaccines negotiator) and Advocate General of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), Giovanni Pitruzzella. AG Pitruzzella, as the Italian newspaper Domani reported, is moreover Vice-President of Aspen Institute Italy. Corporate Europe Observatory and The Good Lobby wrote to the ECJ to express concerns about AG Pitruzzella’s participation in the Aspen Institute / Farmindustria event. Participating in an industry-led seminar of this kind – arguably a lobbying event – seems inappropriate for a Member of the Court and at odds with the ECJ’s Code of Conduct. Koen Lenaerts (President of the ECJ) responded two days later, announcing that “in order to avoid any future misunderstanding”, AG Pitruzzella “will resign from his position with the Aspen Institute Italia”.
EU Transparency Register – unfit for the pandemic
Upcoming changes to the EU Transparency Register – likely to be introduced in 2022 – might force think-tanks to start disclosing their funding sources. SidenoteIn the future rules of the Transparency Register, registrants that do not represent commercial interests will also have to disclose specific funding information. However, it remains to be seen how this will be implemented, and whether it will be enforced. Details on the new rules are currently being decided. It’s high time for the register to ensure that the financial backers of think-tanks are properly disclosed, with strong rules requiring transparency around funding sources.
The EU’s Transparency Register also has a range of other weaknesses and loopholes that make it difficult to track pharma industry lobbying. The EU register only requires an annual update, and often the information disclosed is seriously outdated. This makes it impossible to track Big Pharma's lobby battle over the TRIPS waiver with detailed accuracy or in a timely manner. For example our research shows more than 20 pharma companies and lobby groups are currently reporting lobby spending for 2019 or even 2018, instead of 2020. This includes pharma giants Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Abbot, as well as the Italian and Greek national pharma lobby associations. And as mentioned, the EU register does not provide meaningful information about lobbying on specific laws and policy issues. This is in contrast to the US lobby disclosure system, which requires quarterly reporting and reporting on laws and policies lobbied on. This enables US journalists to track lobbying on key issues, with reliable hard facts and almost in real-time.
More than 20 pharma companies and lobby groups are currently reporting lobby spending for 2019 or even 2018, instead of 2020
For instance, The Intercept reported in April 2021 that "newly filed disclosure forms from the first quarter of 2021 show that over 100 lobbyists have been mobilized" by Big Pharma in the US to oppose the proposed TRIPS waiver. EU pharma lobby group EFPIA’s lobbying against proposed the TRIPS waiver, in contrast, is even not mentioned in its recently updated entry in the EU's transparency register. Corporate Europe Observatory only uncovered specifics on EFPIA’s lobbying via freedom of information requests for European Commission documents. The Intercept also mentions examples of former members of Congress lobbying against the TRIPs waiver. The US lobby register requires disclosure of lobbyists that were previously parliamentarians or government officials (revolving door cases). Precise and up-to-date insights into Big Pharma lobbying – as provided by The Intercept for the US – are impossible in Europe. In the upcoming changes to the EU register, there will be some improvements of reporting which laws and policies are being lobbied over, but sadly not in terms of ensuring more up to date information. Information about pharma industry lobbying will continue to be available only with massive delays.
Transparency loophole at national level
Another loophole is the lobbying that takes place in EU member states, for example to influence the positions of governments in the Council, a crucial part of EU decision-making. SidenoteThe Council is perhaps the most untransparent EU institution, and that includes the role of lobbying within its corridors. As a result of the 2020 agreement to reform the Transparency Register, the Council will for the first time become part of the register, but in practice this will not result in much improved transparency. An example of this kind of under-reporting was the dubious lobby campaign by lobby firm FleishmanHillard carried out for Monsanto, to help secure the re-authorisation of controversial pesticide glyphosate. Monsanto failed to include its €14.5 million contract with lobby consultancy giant FleishmanHillard in its Transparency Register declaration; much of this money was spent on influencing the debate in EU member states. In May 2020, the Transparency Register Secretariat agreed with Corporate Europe Observatory’s complaint against Monsanto, promising that it would “update its guidelines for registrants with regard to activities carried out at EU Member State level”. Ensuring that spending on member state level lobbying is included in lobby disclosure would result in far higher and more realistic figures, but unfortunately the promised change to the guidelines has not yet happened.
Meanwhile, as a result of this lack of transparency, the public is being left in the dark as to the demands, influencing strategies, and full firepower, of the Big Pharma lobby at a time when the debate over who gets to keep monopoly control of COVID-19 patents is raging. The stakes simply couldn't be higher.
Sign the ECI: the ‘Right to Cure' campaign has launched a European Citizens' Initiative calling upon the EU to "make anti-pandemic vaccines and treatments a global public good, freely accessible to everyone". The campaign is collecting one million signatures in EU member states, encouraging the European Commission to implement this crucial demand. Sign the initiative here: https://noprofitonpandemic.eu/
Methodology: the figures in this article are based on the Transparency Register entries of the firms and organisations, as of 10/05/20. In addition to the Transparency Register, we have made use of the search functions of the lobby-watchdog websites www.lobbyfacts.eu and www.integritywatch.eu, which present the data from the Transparency Register in more user-friendly ways. We have used the same methodology as for our April 2015 report 'Policy prescriptions: the firepower of the EU pharmaceutical lobby and implications for public health'. To identify pharmaceutical companies, lobby groups and lobby consultancies working for Big Pharma, we searched the Transparency Register using keywords “pharmaceutical” and “medicines”. An individual search was also carried out for all EFPIA member companies and associations. Companies and lobby groups from related sectors like medical technology were not included, nor were pharma companies reporting negligible lobby spending.