DigitalHealthIndustryResearch & Innovation

A Health Union to prepare Europe for health threats across borders

The coronavirus pandemic, unprecedented in depth, intensity and extent, has cost the lives of millions of human beings. And it is not over yet. It has caused immense human suffering, pushed health systems to their limits, and also inflicted deep social and economic costs both in the European Union and around the world. It has fundamentally changed the course of the world as we knew it.

The measures implemented to contain the pandemic have been effective in reducing the infections and save lives, but have also had a huge impact on people’s livelihoods, their jobs and their freedoms.

Solidarity has been real and tangible since the beginning of this tragedy. Healthcare workers were at the forefront, working day and night to take care of COVID-19 patients. EU Member States switched from unilateral measures to supporting each other, by receiving for instance COVID-19 patients from neighboring countries, and by sending both healthcare professionals and key medical equipment where they were most needed across the Union.

The emergence of a solid cooperation on health matters at the EU level is indisputable.

The EU’s agencies competent in this field, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) played and continue to play a key role in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. On the one hand, the ECDC continuously provided risk assessments and scientific advice based on the epidemiological spread of the virus to guide decision making. On the other hand, the EMA has streamlined its assessment procedures to allow a more rapid and flexible assessment of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.

Despite all these consequent efforts, the experience of the current pandemic taught us several broad lessons. The first is the primacy of securing and protecting the health of our citizens, and by extension the importance of having healthcare systems that are efficient, resilient, and well-resourced. The second is the strong interdependence of the Member States of the EU – both in terms of health and economies. We cannot overcome this crisis unless we respond with unity and coordination. The third lesson is about the need for the EU to develop an open strategic autonomy; we should never again experience shortages of medicines or basic health equipment.

In order to pursue efficiently the fight of the COVID-19 pandemic and to anticipate future health emergencies, we need to equip the EU to better prevent, protect and manage health crises. We need to have a reinforced framework of coordination at the European level. This means reinforcing and complementing the existing structures and mechanisms.

It is specifically in this context that the European Commission announced the objective to build a stronger European Health Union.

A strong European Health Union will not only protect our health. It will also protect our way of life, our economies and our model of society.

Where our health is in danger, our economies are in danger. By building a stronger Health Union, we will contribute to a more resilient EU internal market and sustained economic recovery for all, leaving no one behind.

Following up on its commitment, the Commission adopted in November 2020 a legislative package laying down the first building blocks of the European Health Union.

This package, currently under discussion by EU co-legislators, extends the role of the EMA to serve as central hub for scientific excellence, provides to the agency both the ability to assess supply capacity and to monitor shortages of crucial medicines during a crisis. It also strengthens the mandate of the ECDC to provide hands-on support through epidemiological surveillance and scientific recommendations for appropriate health measures to deal with health crisis. Finally, it includes a Regulation to improve preparedness and response to serious cross-border threats.

What a Health Union also needs, is a facilitated access to medicines. In this view, we have adopted a new Pharmaceutical Strategy in late November last year that has three main objectives: ensure accessibility and affordability of safe and effective medicines and innovative treatments; harness the competitiveness and innovation capacity of European pharmaceutical industry, and ensure Europe’s open strategic autonomy with strong supply chains that can withstand drastic change and are resilient to disruption.

By now, we are fully implementing the EU Vaccines Strategy. This Strategy is a concrete example of the power of European collaboration and of European solidarity in action.

Vaccines are available for all EU countries, at the same time, on the same conditions. Simultaneously, the EU is at the forefront of deliveries of vaccines to the rest of the world, which amount to more than 200 million doses, as many as the doses amount that have been delivered to the Europeans. This massive distribution exercise of vaccines and vaccination definitely allows us to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

However, they will not eliminate the disease, and therapeutics will still be needed on the long run. Recently, on 6 May 2021, we adopted a COVID-19 therapeutics Strategy to support the development and availability of COVID-19 therapeutics, including for the treatment of the long-term effects of COVID-19 infection. Our goal is to have at least three new therapeutics to treat COVID-19 authorised by October 2021, and possibly two more by end of the year.

A Health Union is not only about pandemics, it is also about improving the daily life of people. And in this view, fighting cancer remains a key battle to win. In February of this year, we adopted our Beating Cancer Plan. The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted cancer treatment, delayed screening, and affected access to medicines, exposing patients to greater risks. The EU Cancer Plan re-focuses our efforts with actions across the entire disease pathway – prevention, detection, diagnosis and life after cancer- aimed at strengthening partnerships, building links between fields, and putting patients at its core.

This year still, we will present further proposals to complete the Health Union under construction. This will include the creation of a Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA) that is meant to address gaps in foresight, including demand/supply dimensions, with better EU preparedness and response to serious cross-border health threats, by enabling rapid availability, access and distribution of needed countermeasures.

In addition, we will launch the European Health Data Space.

Using digitalisation to its full potential and offering secure access to health data will benefit health research and decision-making and improve healthcare delivery.

In order to put money where our mouth is, these initiatives will be supported financially by the largest allocation to health ever in the EU budget – amounting to 5.1 billion EUR – under the umbrella of the new self-standing EU4Health programme. These resources come in addition to those allocated to health from other sources, notably from EU’s research budget, such as Horizon.

The Commission is encouraging Member States to use the generous resources they will benefit from via the Recovery and Resilience Facility to invest in their national healthcare systems, addressing in this way structural weaknesses displayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

All these proposals and efforts are within the remits of the Treaty, fully respecting the competences of the Member States. However, they still fall short to address the high expectations of EU citizens for more Europe in health.

Looking towards the future now, the freshly launched Conference on the Future of Europe, with its emphasis on outreach to citizens and its aim to create a forum to address their concerns and priorities, provides an optimal platform to ignite discussions on the evolution of the EU’s role on health in the future.

Additionally, the Global Health Summit scheduled on 21 May 2021 in Italy will allow the EU to steer the worldwide reflection on how to strengthen global health security in the “age of pandemics”.

The coronavirus has touched every aspect of our personal, professional, social and economic life. We urgently need to build a strong European Health Union to increase our resilience to cross-border health threats and provide all European citizens with the high level of public health they expect and deserve. It is our shared and urgent responsibility to take forward these measures quickly and thoroughly, and to overcome the fragmentation and gaps in instruments, information, and mind-sets, which will make us collectively more resilient, and consequently, will allow us to protect and promote our European Way of Life.