The EU’s supportive role in managing public health crises and cross-border threats

As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, the European Union (EU), its Member States and institutions swiftly managed to work together and find solutions where many only saw problems.

It is essential to remember what we went through in the first months of 2020: we saw borders closing without clear coordination, in an almost panic move due to the unknown virus and its potential impact. At the same time, a worldwide search for personal protective equipment and other medical products was in order and a joint procurement was launched by the EU. Solidarity also prevailed when different Member States were hit differently and in need of specialized medical professionals, equipment and medical products. When focusing on the vaccination rollout, seen as one of the most promising tools to tackle COVID-19, the EU was since the beginning committed to ensuring universal access to a safe and effective vaccine solution. And so the EU delivered.

With many lessons learned, especially when focusing on managing future public health crises and cross-border threats, it is imperative that we foresee the obstacles ahead and reinforce the importance of building strong health policies, as an investment for the whole of society.

The Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) in the European Parliament has been asking for a true European Health Union, and the approved EU4Health program will have an unparalleled role, by investing 5,3 billion euros in 10 specific objectives under 4 general goals: “to improve and foster health in the Union”; “to tackle cross-border health threats”; “to improve medicinal products, medical devices and crisis-relevant products”; and “to strengthen health systems, their resilience and resource efficiency”.

Besides that, a new legislative package to strengthen the EU’s response to health threats, with the umbrella file of the revision of the regulation of serious cross-border health threats, the revision of the mandate of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the revision of the mandate of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) will respond to EU needs. The aim is to build a stronger and more comprehensive legal framework within which the Union can prevent, prepare and respond to health crises, as this won’t surely be the last pandemic of our times.

The strengthening of the role of EMA will allow this agency to contribute more in the health crisis management framework: to deal with potential drug shortages during major public health events and emergencies, and strengthening the ability to manage the availability of medicines and medical devices.

On the other hand, the strengthened mandate of the ECDC will ensure better preparedness to manage present and future health challenges with reinforced: epidemiological real-time surveillance; preparedness and response planning, reporting and auditing; provision of non-binding recommendations and options for risk management; capacity to mobilize and deploy an EU Health Task Force to assist local response in the Member States; network of EU reference laboratories and a network for substances of human origin.

To strengthen Europe’s ability to prevent, detect, and rapidly respond to cross-border health emergencies, the European Commission also presented the EU Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA). HERA will benefit from the administrative support of DG SANTE, ensuring the development, manufacturing, procurement, and equitable distribution of key medical countermeasures.

With regard to the regulation on serious cross-border health threats, that is being negotiated at this moment, the European Parliament has been keen in promoting health literacy and increasing transparency throughout all processes, focusing on prevention, preparedness and response in relation to European and national plans and maintaining the goal of better respond to any health threat that may affect the EU.

The EU will also review its pharmaceutical strategy, which aims to modernize the regulatory framework, support research and promote a competitive and innovative European pharmaceutical industry, trying to fulfil unmet medical needs and enhancing resilience through diversified supply chains, environmental sustainability, and crisis preparedness.

When we think at a larger scale, it is clear that there is an urge to work on an International pandemic treaty on the fight against pandemics. Cooperation is needed to better prepare the World for the next big public health crises, at all levels – prevention, preparedness and response -, as approved by the World Health Assembly last December. This treaty must be drawn into the International Health regulations, that will also be revised, and are already legally-binding on 196 countries, thus creating a framework that embodies the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic.

When we think about Europe’s strategic autonomy in this area, even if it seems paradoxical, it will mean not only the strengthening of national prevention, preparedness and response plans, but also the deepening of the Union’s capacities and its global cooperation. In public health, as we have heard during the last months, “no one is safe until everyone is safe” – and that is why our main political ambition must be to continue doing what has never been done before to guarantee that Health is an universal right.