#EAPM – Governments battle tech firms over #Coronavirus

First the news that a group of Europe’s big countries have weighed-in against Silicon Valley for “imposing” standards on coronavirus-tracking technology, writes European Alliance for Personalised Medicine (EAPM) Executive Director Denis Horgan.

Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Portugal argue that the EU needs to wean itself off dependency on foreign tech companies, with the officials in charge of digital affairs saying the US-based firms are neglecting the right of democratically-elected governments to have the final say over how relevant tools should be developed.

In a joint publication, the officials wrote (without naming the companies): “We believe that this attempt…is a missed opportunity and the wrong signal when it comes to promoting open cooperation between governments and the private sector.”

“States and companies must work together to recover from this pandemic and to become stronger, more cooperative and more digital than ever,” they added.

The five EU member states stress that recent experience has illustrated the importance of Europe to boost its “digital sovereignty, [which] is the foundation for Europe to be competitive”.

“It 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,” they wrote.

And while we’re getting ‘techie’, a court in the Netherlands has dismissed a case by anti-5G activists to stop the rollout of such networks, while supporting the application of international norms on radiation.

Activist group Stop5GNL filed a challenge to the Dutch planned spectrum auction, demanding its postponement until clarity emerges over any alleged health impact.

However, a court in The Hague sided with the government, which said the activists had failed to provide solid scientific evidence for its part.

Meanwhile, The World Health Organization has formally launched its COVID-19 Technology Access Pool – the idea being to enable broader access to intellectual property (IP), data and scientific knowledge related to the coronavirus.

It’s a voluntary arrangement and supported by more than 30 countries, but with only the Netherlands, Portugal, Norway and Luxembourg joining from Europe.

WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at the launch that the pool is the sister project of the organisation’s existing initiative to accelerate work on treatments and vaccines and “offers concrete actions to achieve [its] objective which is equitable access”.

However, industry is not happy about the sharing of IP, with Pascal Soriot, chief executive of AstraZeneca, for example, saying that IP is a fundamental part of the pharmaceutical industry. 

“If you don’t protect IP then essentially there is no incentive for anyone to innovate,” he said.

Power to the EU! 

It turns out that European citizens are broadly in support of giving the EU more power to deal with emergencies, such as the one we find ourselves in right now. This according to a survey commissioned by the European Parliament.

More than two-thirds (69%) favour Brussels getting extra powers to handle crises such as COVID-19.

Portugal, Ireland and Romania were big on the idea, with Sweden and the Czech Republic the most sceptical. Nine percent said they don’t know.

On top of this, making sure that citizens have adequate medical supplies was top of the pops right now, perhaps not surprisingly, followed by the development of a vaccine for the novel coronavirus.

After all this time, it’s been a bit of a shock to see health climb quickly and suddenly to the summit of the European Commission’s agenda since COVID-19 struck, but done so it has, with certainly a lot more cash and resources being thrown at it.

The €9.4 billion it is talking about going to a new stand alone health programme has been called by Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides a “game changer” and “a real paradigm shift,” and she’s not wrong.

The European Commission says this EU4Health programme will target coronavirus-induced issues on top of long-standing health policy issues. The latter, as we know, include addressing medicines shortages, upping cross-border co-operation and boosting healthcare systems 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 Schinas said of the matter: “We are not changing the treaty, but we are exploiting fully the possibility the treaty offers us.”

He added that this is a “first stage” of building a “health union” in the future: “One day, we’ll make this a tangible reality,” he said. Good luck with that!

Meanwhile, Schinas has explained that the EU wants to bridge the “asymmetry of expectations” between what citizens want the EU to do in health and what they can do with the treaties, and said the new proposal builds on the bloc’s ambitions and scope in the policy area.

Staying with the Commission, the EU Executive will publish its Pharmaceutical Strategy for Europe and Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan in the fourth quarter of this year, said a recently released Work Programme. An early (summer) release had been mooted but now won’t happen.

Cancer and corona

Cancer Research UK has published figures estimating that more than two million people in the UK have found themselves waiting for screening, tests or treatments for cancer.  

Its chief clinician, Charles Swanton, says of the situation: “Delays to diagnosis and treatment could mean that some cancers will become inoperable.”

For Cancer Research UK, coronavirus testing is vital to getting cancer matters back on track. “We’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,” the charity says.

“But 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.”

Staying in the UK, and on a connected note, Boris Johnson – for all his current woes – has yet another challenge coming up.  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 illness on his weight. So now he’s looking at nationwide interventions to tackle obesity.

Said a well-placed official: “If evidence emerges to say that combating obesity can help us combat [coronavirus] as a country…it can become part of how we make our country more resilient in the coming weeks and months.”

The conclusion appears to be that his government needs to be more “interventionist” in its approach to combating obesity, with Johnson telling colleagues it’s “alright for you thinnies”. He’s even been out running…

Inequalities in society, of course, mean that healthcare is as imbalanced as it always has been, and “is a crisis that will remain long after the epidemic itself subsides”, according David Buck, a former deputy director for health inequalities at the Department of Health. He’s now a senior fellow at the King’s Fund think tank.

“Tackling these deep-rooted inequalities will require committed cross-government action through a new national strategy. This is not impossible  evidence shows that the last Labour government made progress…it] requires political will and commitment above anything else,” 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 England next week. We’ll keep an eye out for it…

Buck went on: “COVID-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.”

In a rare plus, there is a belief that the pandemic may have made the public more amenable to health advice in general, with suggestions that 300,000 have quit smoking as a direct result, with many more cutting back.

Jeanelle De Gruchy, president of the Association of Directors of Public Health, meanwhile underlined the need for “significant long term investment in a healthy built environment, green spaces, early years support, education and public health services”.

“Boris Johnson said himself that ‘public health was the highest law’ and we need to see this reflected in decision-making going forward,” she added. “We can’t go back to normal.”

Lockdown questions

Plenty of doctors, scientists and public health experts have spoken out against national 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 doctor Alberto Zangrillo, head of the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan, though, who is under fire for saying that coronavirus “clinically no longer exists in Italy”, in view of viral loads that were “absolutely infinitesimal compared to the ones carried out a month or two months ago”.

One who disagrees, Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead for COIVD-19, said: “In terms of the transmissibility, that has not changed, in terms of the severity, that has not changed.”

She was backed by Martin Hibberd, professor of emerging infectious disease at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, who said that the available data shows there’s “currently no evidence that there is any significant difference relating to severity”.

So stay aware, and stay safe

While we have your attention: Here’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 ‘bridging event’ between the current Croatia and upcoming Germany EU Presidencies and will be held online, on 30 June.

It’s entitled ‘Maintaining public trust in the 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 policy 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.

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