Billions of euros, millions of faulty masks, and no answers

Romanian firefighters unload a first batch of 30 ventilators from rescEU – the common European reserve of medical equipment set up earlier this year to help countries affected by the coronavirus pandemic, at the Hospital in Bulovka. EC – Audiovisual Service, photographer  Michal Cizek

If truth is the first casualty in war, transparency was lost first in the fight against Covid-19, closely followed by lack of control and oversight.

In the very first contract for protection equipment paid for by the EU budget, the Commission in April signed a contract with the German company Asanus Medizintechnic GmbH worth 29 million euros for 10 million masks.

When the first batch arrived in May tests in four member states showed the masks did not comply with the contract. They were non-homogenous, only partially passed the filter test, and fell below the norm for a fit-for-purpose test.

Asked repeatedly about the consequences for the supplier, and what happened with the total batch, the commission did not return with an answer.

The order of 10 million failed masks is one of more than 37,800 Covid-19 related tenders and contracts investigated by journalists in 37 countries, and coordinated by the OCCRP (Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project).

€37…or 20 cents?

The journalists found an extremely scattered pattern of prices for COVID equipment. Prices for protective masks bought by governments and EU-institutions varied from twenty cents to 37 euros per unit.

The investigations also showed that contracts were signed with companies never heard of before the pandemic. Some of the contracts lead to deliveries of useless equipment.

Of the collated and analysed contracts worth a total €21bn, EU institutions signed agreements for around €3.4bn, with two major procurement contracts negotiated by the commission on behalf of the member states.

They come with a number of unanswered questions.

In April a contract worth €1.5bn was signed for ventilators with or without CE-certification – a certificate to show the product is sold in accordance with security, health, functional and environmental standards.

In an email to us, the commission explained why CE-certification was sidestepped: “As you have rightly indicated, the call for tenders on ventilators was launched in the midst of the peak outbreak in Europe.”

“Therefore, to allow reaching out for additional market suppliers and increase opportunities for potentially life-saving equipment, the process included lots with and without CE-certification.”

The commission stressed that it would be up to the individual governments whether to buy and use non-certified equipment or not.

15 days? Five months later…

The second large EU-contract was awarded to the German company GYZ GmbH, an owner-managed company in cooperation with an unnamed Chinese company.

The contract was worth €1.5bn, for googles, face-shields and masks.

To learn more about the awarded contracts and the companies behind it, requests for access to document were filed to the commission in May.

Such requests should be responded to within 15 working days, with a possible extension of up to 15 additional working days in “exceptional cases”, according to the law on access to documents in EU institutions.

Five months later, after numerous emails and phone calls, the responsible office in the Commission has still not responded.

In the latest apology for unforeseen delay dated 13 October the Commission said a reply has been prepared, and: ”it will be sent based on the technical timing needed to reach the sign level.”

No clarity was provided about how “technical timing needed” is defined, or about the number of bureaucratic levels between the prepared answer and whoever is entrusted to sign.

Back in April, the EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly reminded the EU Council and commission that transparency and good administration must not be pushed aside by the Covid-19 crisis.

In July she followed up with specified questions to the commission about procurement agreements and the independence of scientific advice.

The commission is due to reply to the ombudsman by the end of October.

“Black hole”

How much money governments have spent all in all on personal protective equipment, medicine and medical devices is anybody’s guess. The sum of €21bn only covers contracts available in the public domain.

In the EU, only Portugal, Poland, Lithuania and Slovenia published all contracts signed by public authorities.

Most countries held back information on prices paid, arguing it was necessary to preserve secrecy in order not undermine negotiations.

Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, together with non-EU Switzerland and Norway, stand out as “black holes” from where almost no information is made available.

First published in EUObserver.

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