Opposition MPs on the House of Commons public accounts committee want to view the contracts for billions of dollars between the federal government and COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers, but the Liberals are seeking a requirement that the MPs sign a non-disclosure agreement before doing so.
Bloc Québécois MP Nathalie Sinclair-Desgagné had tabled a motion in committee on Feb. 13 to have MPs look at the contracts free of any redactions and in a controlled setting where no electronic devices would be allowed.
On Feb. 16, however, Liberal MP Anthony Housefather moved an amendment to seek the permission of vaccine manufacturers to allow committee members to view the unredacted documents, and to have MPs sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) in order to do so.
Housefather explained why the documents have so many redactions.
“It’s because these documents were signed at the beginning of a pandemic when everybody was desperate for vaccines, when companies were being told to rush vaccine production, do testing in an unprecedented way, in a way they normally don’t do it,” he said.
He added that the companies were exposed to “way higher liability” for rushing the products to market, skipping the testing that in a normal scenario would take years to complete.
“So that’s why these companies said, ‘If I’m going to deliver you this product that I haven’t tested in my normal way, I want to have different conditions.’”
Housefather’s amended motion was not voted on during the committee meeting and he called a vote to adjourn as there was no settlement in sight with opposition MPs.
Commenting on Housefather’s amendment, Sinclair-Desgagné said he seemed to be “representing pharmaceutical reps rather than his constituents.”
“We as parliamentarians don’t have to sign non-disclosure agreements with pharmacy companies—that is an aberration,” she said in the House.
Conservative MP Kelly McCauley called Housefather’s motion “insulting” and said he wasn’t aware of previous circumstances where an MP would have leaked information shared in camera.
McCauley quoted from a Washington Post article based on a report by NGO Public Citizen on Pfizer’s vaccine contract negotiations with governments.
Public Citizen obtained unredacted versions of contracts with a number of countries and said they “offer a rare glimpse into the power one pharmaceutical corporation has gained to silence governments, throttle supply, shift risk and maximize profits in the worst public health crisis in a century.”
“I’m not casting aspersions against Pfizer, I thank God for them, that they created that vaccine, but that being said, it is an issue,” McCauley said.
NDP MP Blake Desjarlais also expressed concerns about the Liberals’ request to sign NDAs.
He said the government should not have gotten into an agreement knowing there could be a breach of confidentiality due to scrutiny from Parliament, and suggested this should be a consideration going forward.
Sinclair-Desgagné’s motion was tabled in relation to two Auditor General reports released in December pertaining to the government’s procurement of vaccines and distribution of COVID-19 benefits.
Auditor General Karen Hogan found that the government had acted urgently to procure enough doses, but also ended up wasting a lot of them.
One of her reports says Ottawa spent approximately $5 billion for 169 million doses during the reporting period of December 2020 to May 2022, for a price tag of $30 per dose.
Sinclair-Desgagné remarked how countries paid different prices for vaccine doses and suggested this explains why manufacturers want to maintain confidentiality.
Her motion requests that the public accounts committee undertake a study of the contracts between Ottawa and Moderna, Sanofi, Pfizer, Medicago, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, and Novavax.
No dates for future meetings of the public accounts committee have been announced, where the Housefather amendment will be modified or voted on.
The House of Commons is currently adjourned until March 6.