The lessons EU learned from the pandemic towards a better prepared and resilient pharmaceutical system

By Dolors Montserrat, MEP (EPP Group – Spain) - EP COVI Report

The COVID-19 crisis has pushed health higher on the agenda of the European Union, but also on the list of top concerns of our citizens. In response to the consequences of the pandemic, the European Parliament on April 2022 set up a Special Committee on Covid-19, in a bid to assess the European Union’s response to the pandemic, drawing conclusions and put in place recommendations for improving the EU’s Health crisis management and preparedness for future emergencies. At the beginning of June, the Special Committee approved its report, for which I was the Rapporteur.

The EU, as well as the rest of the world, was not ready to cope with this unprecedented health crisis and its shock waves, which affected societies and economies worldwide. After a slow start, the European Union reacted with all the instruments at its disposal, and it is clear that its leadership, especially in trying to advance the search for and development of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, while at the same time coordinating health, economic and social measures, has been crucial in saving millions of lives in the EU and beyond.

The development and deployment of COVID-19 vaccines and the EU Vaccines Strategy constituted a game-changer in the pandemic.

The strong European Health Union we are building will be essential to strengthen our health systems and cope with future health crises, improving its resilience and quality, and ensure equal, universal, affordable medical care, while strengthening transparency of public funding for health research and governance.

Research and innovation have never been more important than today. A thriving and technically advanced European healthcare industry and a competitive research community is vital. The EU needs to maintain a strong European intellectual property system to encourage R&D and manufacturing in the EU Health sector and to ensure that Europe remains innovative and a world leader, while supporting third countries to improve their technical expertise and manufacturing capacities.

The medical emergency affected the security and stability of social and economic conditions, influencing, in particular, the life of vulnerable people, including people with disabilities and chronically ill patients, with consequences linked to delays and disruption to diagnostics and treatments. This cannot happen again.

It is of absolute importance to create more quality jobs along the entire healthcare sector, and invest in continuous education and training for the health workforce in the European Union, while facilitating mobility at EU level, with the support of NextGenerationEU.

The multiple challenges currently facing the EU show the need for ensuring the EU open strategic autonomy in Health. In the context of the pandemic, the EU needs to find permanent solutions to avoid dependency on third countries for medicines, in particular active ingredients and medical devices. The role of HERA will be crucial. The EU needs to increase its production capacity by encouraging its industry, but also by diversifying its supply chain and ensuring better coordination of national health strategies.

The Commission and Member States need to promote more joint European public procurement as has been done for Covid-19 vaccines and innovative procurement procedures incorporating criteria such as: ‘Made in Europe’, timely delivery, eco-sustainable production, security and continuity of supply, talent retention.

We have entered the EU decade of Health and together with the Green Transition, the Health sector need to endorse and implement the Digital Transition, benefitting our Healthcare Systems and Services with the most advanced digital solutions, the Artificial Intelligence and the EU Health Data Space, for the most modern, high quality and effective research, treatments and data management, while protecting the patients’ privacy.

Digitalization in Health comes with an urgent need for cybersecurity. Cyber-attacks on hospitals and health systems have become almost a weekly occurrence in several parts of Europe. We call on the Commission and Member States to form a unified strategic approach and to set up instruments and funding programmes to fight cyber threats.

Finally, we call for the swift implementation of a holistic approach to pandemic prevention and response.

The EU should adopt the G20 Rome Declaration and establish innovative cross-sectoral primary prevention programmes to reduce risk factors and promote healthy lifestyles, integrating a One Health and Health-in-all-policies approach, throughout agriculture and food production, transport, the energy sector, industrial development, education and social services.

In conclusion, I consider the report a key document in the event of future health emergency crises and not only, providing solid guidance based on the lessons learned from a real pandemic. We recommend capitalising on it by taking forward actions from the report, which will contribute building a European Health Union, and a much more resilient European economy and society, able to face any threat not only to health, but also to security, while protecting the welfare and lifestyle model of European citizens.

A strong European Health Union needs a clear, ambitious, up-to-date EU pharmaceutical regulatory framework, able to stimulate and support research and innovation, cooperate with a globally competitive secured European industry, and veil for the sustainability of our National Healthcare Systems while putting the patients’ need at the centre. After twenty years, with the EU Pharmaceutical Legislation review now in the European Parliament, we have a tremendous opportunity to achieve it.

The findings of the COVI Committee report point to the need for a stronger political will among national governments when communicating and working together on Health under the coordination of the European Commission and the Parliament. If the EU wants to withstand the onslaught of the next pandemic, it has to be prepared with financial investments, new legal instruments, and a more cohesive and harmonized cooperation among the Member States, European institutions, and the international organizations.