In the April session of the European Parliament’s Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) Committee, Health Commissioner Kyriakides and Crisis Management Commissioner Lenarčič firmly stated that the work carried out by the Commission during the COVID-19 pandemic leveraged all the competences attributed to the EU by law. Thanks to the EU, tens of thousands of European citizens were brought back home, the government of India was asked to lift some export bans on active pharmaceutical ingredients, and a public procurement process for protective gear and ventilators was launched.

These are just a few examples of a longer list of actions, which ranges from stockpiling of medical supplies and the Emergency Support Instrument, to research-focused initiatives aimed at understanding and responding to the pandemic – the latest of which is the European COVID-19 Data Platform, which enables the rapid collection and sharing of available research data.

EU bodies working for the same goal on multiple levels

The work which is taking place in parallel by other European bodies should be considered in the same context. The European Medicines Agency (EMA), amongst other things, launched its enhanced fast-track monitoring system to help prevent and mitigate supply issues in crucial medicines used for treating patients with COVID-19. Under this system, each pharmaceutical company will appoint a single contact point who will report to EMA and national competent authorities all current and anticipated shortages of medicines used for patients with COVID-19, both for centrally and nationally authorised medicines. The new mechanism will allow better oversight of ongoing supply issues and a quicker flow of information between regulatory authorities in the EU and the pharmaceutical industry, with the objective of mitigating and preventing shortages of medicines used during the COVID-19 health emergency.

Global mobilisation is needed 

If we look even further, the United Nations approved its second COVID-19 resolutioncalling for accelerated scientific cooperation and global coordination, and asking the UN Secretary-General to work with the WHO to ensure timely and equitable access to testing, medical supplies, medicines and future coronavirus vaccines for all in need. A cross-section of biopharma and medical technology industry associations welcomed the resolution. The WHO and the WTO are working together to support efforts to ensure the normal cross-border flow of vital medical supplies and other goods and services, promoting them where possible, and to resolve unnecessary disruptions to global supply chains, in furtherance of the International Health Regulations and WTO rules.

This is not only about COVID-19!

The point of illustrating these initiatives is that supranational, coordinated action is required to deal with the extraordinary challenges posed by this (and any future) pandemic to people’s health as well as their livelihoods. The same lessons, beyond pandemics, apply to those major health scourges which risk to be deprioritized, both infectious and non-communicable.

There is now more evidence (in case it had not been sufficiently demonstrated in the past) that ‘health equals wealth’. People around the world understand it now more than ever. Numerous experts highlight that the current crisis calls for a paradigm shift in public and global health policies from a specific reactional paradigm to a systemic, coordinated and preventive paradigm. Such preventive health policies must be tailored to local specificities and environments, and health systems must be strengthened at the local level to be able to respond to population needs and expectations.

Will the Conference on the Future of Europe help to keep Europeans healthy?

Local politics – national and regional – should not mishandle the collaborative efforts which are required, nor manipulate information and science. People’s health, everyone’s health, is at stake. The nexus between local, national and global health should be the key to the new paradigm, the lesson we have learnt.

The unhelpful debate, raised in particular by one government, around the ability of the WHO to handle the crisis and to coordinate countries’ responses to health issues, is not coherent with the scientific and socio-economic evidence that more and better coordination and investment in health is paramount to our future prosperity.

The EU needs to play a greater role – and therefore needs more powers – in the area of public health, to really improve coordination and allow the EU to step in, as Commissioner Kyriakides admitted before the European Parliament. The forthcoming Conference on the Future of Europe should not miss a historical opportunity to have this matter at the top of its agenda. The debate should be pragmatic and concrete, and should consider for instance increased roles and responsibilities that could be played by agencies such as the ECDC, EMA and EFSA.

Incisive Health is closely monitoring these rapidly evolving policy developments. We are keen to assist our clients in interpreting and assessing the impact of new policy measures and in engaging with stakeholders in the health community to better inform their choices and new initiatives.