First the news that a group of Europeâ€™s big countries have weighed-in against Silicon Valley forÂ â€œimposingâ€Â standards on coronavirus-tracking technology, writes European Alliance for Personalised Medicine (EAPM) Executive Director Denis Horgan.
Germany, France, Italy, Spain and PortugalÂ argue thatÂ the EU needs to wean itself off dependency on foreign tech companies, with theÂ officials in charge of digital affairsÂ saying the US-basedÂ firmsÂ areÂ neglecting the right of democratically-elected governments to have the final say over howÂ relevantÂ tools should be developed.
In a joint publication, the officials wrote (without naming the companies): â€œWe believe that this attemptâ€¦is a missed opportunity and the wrong signal when it comes to promoting open cooperation between governments and the private sector.â€
â€œStates and companies must work together to recover from this pandemic and to become stronger, more cooperative and more digital than ever,â€ they added.
TheÂ five EU member statesÂ stress that recent experience has illustrated the importance of Europe to boost itsÂ â€œdigital sovereignty, [which] is the foundation for Europe to be competitiveâ€.
â€œIt must be our aim to set the digital standards in the globalized world in order to determine the use and production of applications, especially in the field of key technologies, independently of individual companies or economic sectors,â€Â they wrote.
And while weâ€™re getting â€˜techieâ€™, aÂ court in the NetherlandsÂ hasÂ dismissedÂ a case by anti-5G activists to stop the rollout ofÂ such networks, whileÂ supporting the application of international norms on radiation.
Activist groupÂ Stop5GNLÂ filed a challengeÂ to theÂ DutchÂ planned spectrum auction,Â demanding its postponementÂ until clarityÂ emerges over anyÂ alleged health impact.
However, aÂ court in The Hague sided with the government, which said theÂ activists had failed toÂ provide solid scientific evidenceÂ for its part.
Meanwhile,Â TheÂ World Health OrganizationÂ hasÂ formally launched its COVID-19 Technology Access PoolÂ – the idea being toÂ enable broader access to intellectual propertyÂ (IP), data and scientific knowledge related to the coronavirus.
Itâ€™s aÂ voluntaryÂ arrangementÂ and supported byÂ more than 30Â countries,Â but withÂ only the Netherlands, Portugal, Norway and LuxembourgÂ joining from Europe.
WHO Director GeneralÂ Tedros Adhanom GhebreyesusÂ saidÂ at the launchÂ that the pool is the sister project of the organisationâ€™sÂ existing initiativeÂ to accelerate work on treatments and vaccines andÂ â€œoffers concrete actions to achieve [its] objective which is equitable accessâ€.
However, industryÂ is not happy about theÂ sharingÂ of IP, withÂ Pascal Soriot, chief executive of AstraZeneca,Â for example, sayingÂ that IPÂ isÂ a fundamental part of the pharmaceutical industry.Â
â€œIf you donâ€™t protect IP then essentially there is no incentive for anyone to innovate,â€Â he said.
Power to the EU!Â
It turns out thatÂ EuropeanÂ citizens areÂ broadlyÂ inÂ supportÂ ofÂ giving the EU more power to deal with emergencies, such as the one we find ourselves in right now. ThisÂ according to a surveyÂ commissionedÂ by the European Parliament.
More than two-thirds (69%) favour Brussels getting extraÂ powersÂ to handle crises such as COVID-19.
Portugal, Ireland and RomaniaÂ were big on the idea, withÂ Sweden and the Czech RepublicÂ the most sceptical. Nine percentÂ said they donâ€™t know.
On top of this, making sure that citizens haveÂ adequate medical suppliesÂ was top ofÂ theÂ pops right now, perhaps not surprisingly, followed byÂ theÂ development of a vaccineÂ for the novel coronavirus.
After all this time, itâ€™s been a bit of a shock to see health climb quickly and suddenly to the summit of theÂ European Commissionâ€™s agenda since COVID-19 struck, but done so it has, with certainly a lot more cash and resources being thrown at it.
The â‚¬9.4 billionÂ it is talking about going toÂ a new standÂ alone health programme has been called by Health CommissionerÂ Stella KyriakidesÂ a â€œgame changerâ€Â andÂ â€œa real paradigm shift,â€ and sheâ€™s not wrong.
TheÂ EuropeanÂ Commission says thisÂ EU4Health programmeÂ will targetÂ coronavirus-induced issuesÂ on top ofÂ long-standing health policy issues. The latter, as we know, includeÂ addressingÂ medicines shortages,Â upping cross-border co-operation and boostingÂ healthcare systemsÂ in general.
The downside is that member states are getting, and will continue to get, a bit twitchy about the range of country versus EU competence, but it was ever thus (anyone still remembers HTA?).
Commission Vice President Margaritis SchinasÂ said of the matter: â€œWe are not changing the treaty,Â but we are exploiting fully the possibility the treaty offers us.â€
He addedÂ that this is aÂ â€œfirst stageâ€Â of building aÂ â€œhealth unionâ€Â in the future:Â â€œOne day, weâ€™ll make this a tangible reality,â€Â he said.Â Good luck with that!
Meanwhile, Schinas has explained that the EUÂ wantsÂ to bridge theÂ â€œasymmetry of expectationsâ€Â between what citizens want the EU to do in health and what they can do with the treaties, and said theÂ new proposal builds on the blocâ€™s ambitions and scope in the policy area.
Staying with the Commission, the EU Executive willÂ publish itsÂ Pharmaceutical Strategy for EuropeÂ andÂ Europeâ€™s Beating Cancer PlanÂ in the fourth quarter ofÂ this year, said a recently released Work Programme. An early (summer) release had been mooted but now wonâ€™t happen.
Cancer and corona
Cancer Research UKÂ hasÂ published figuresÂ estimating thatÂ more thanÂ two million people in the UK have found themselvesÂ waiting for screening, tests or treatments for cancer.Â Â
ItsÂ chief clinician,Â Charles Swanton, says of the situation: â€œDelays to diagnosis and treatment could mean that some cancers will become inoperable.â€
For Cancer Research UK, coronavirus testingÂ isÂ vital to getting cancer matters back on track.Â â€œWeâ€™re seeing cancer services across the UK adapting to COVID-19, with COVID-protected safe spaces being set up to allow cancer treatment to be delivered safely,â€ the charity says.
â€œBut for this to work, it requires regular testing for COVID-19 in all patients and staff working in these places, whether they have COVID-19 symptoms or not.â€
Staying in the UK, and on a connected note,Â Boris JohnsonÂ – for all his current woes – has yet another challenge coming up.Â Â How to make Britain healthy again.
After his own, much-covered battle with COVID-19, the UK prime minister blamed the severity of his own illnessÂ onÂ his weight.Â So now heâ€™s looking at nationwideÂ interventions to tackle obesity.
Said a well-placed official: â€œIf evidence emerges to say that combating obesity can help us combat [coronavirus] as a countryâ€¦it can become part of how we make our country more resilient in the coming weeks and months.â€
The conclusion appears to be thatÂ his government needs to be moreÂ â€œinterventionistâ€Â in its approach to combating obesity, with Johnson tellingÂ colleagues itâ€™s â€œalright for you thinniesâ€. Heâ€™s even been out runningâ€¦
Inequalities in society, of course, mean that healthcare is as imbalanced as it always has been, and â€œis a crisis that will remain long after the epidemic itself subsidesâ€, accordingÂ David Buck, a former deputy director for health inequalities at the Department of Health. Heâ€™s now aÂ senior fellow at the Kingâ€™s Fund think tank.
â€œTackling these deep-rooted inequalities will require committed cross-government action through a new national strategy. This is not impossibleÂ –Â evidence shows that the last Labour government made progressâ€¦it] requires political will and commitment above anything else,â€ Buck added.
A government-commissioned review of factors that may have made COVID-19 deaths more likely is due to be published by Public Health EnglandÂ next week. Weâ€™ll keep an eye out for itâ€¦
Buck went on: â€œCOVID-19 has followed the pattern of nearly all other illnesses in hitting the poorest hardest, and has taken a particular toll among people with long-term conditions and people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.â€
In a rare plus, thereÂ is a belief thatÂ the pandemic may have made the public more amenable to health advice in general, with suggestions thatÂ 300,000 have quit smokingÂ as a direct result, with many more cutting back.
Jeanelle De Gruchy, president of the Association of Directors of Public Health,Â meanwhile underlined the need for â€œsignificant long term investment in a healthy built environment, green spaces, early years support, education and public health servicesâ€.
â€œBoris Johnson said himself thatÂ â€˜public health was the highest lawâ€™Â and we need to see this reflected in decision-making going forward,â€Â sheÂ added. â€œWe canâ€™t go back to normal.â€
Plenty of doctors, scientists and public health expertsÂ have spokenÂ out againstÂ nationalÂ lifting of lockdowns, to whatever degree, not least in Malta and the UK, generally being of the opinion that much of the rule-relaxation is too much too soon.
Many will agree. Not so many concur with Italian doctorÂ Alberto Zangrillo, head of the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan, though, who is under fire for saying that coronavirus â€œclinically no longer exists in Italyâ€, in view ofÂ viral loads that wereÂ â€œabsolutely infinitesimal compared to the ones carried out a month or two months agoâ€.
One who disagrees,Â Maria Van Kerkhove, WHOâ€™s technical lead for COIVD-19, said: â€œIn terms of the transmissibility, that has not changed, in terms of the severity, that has not changed.â€
She was backed byÂ Martin Hibberd, professor of emerging infectious disease at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine,Â who saidÂ that the available data shows thereâ€™s â€œcurrently no evidence that there is any significant difference relating to severityâ€.
So stay aware, and stay safe
While we have your attention: Hereâ€™s another quick reminder about our upcoming Presidency conference, scheduled for the end of the month. Registration is open, and you can get on board by clicking here.
The virtual conference is a â€˜bridging eventâ€™ between the current Croatia and upcomingÂ Germany EU Presidencies and will beÂ held online, on 30 June.
Itâ€™sÂ entitled ‘Maintaining public trust in theÂ use of Big Data for health science in a Covid and post-Covid world’, so is bang on topic.
Despite us not being able to meet face-to-face, events such as this still allow the pulling together of leading experts in the arena of personalised medicine drawn from patient groups, payers, health-care professionals plus industry, science, academic and research representatives.
A key role of any EAPM conference is to bring together experts to agree policies by consensus and take our conclusions to policyÂ makers. And this time, we go even further into the realm of expertise, given the huge crisis that we are all facing.
Do join us if you can! Here is that link again.