#EAPM – Lockdowns ease – but big worries remain for HEALTH CARE

Hello, and welcome to EAPM’s latest update as we approach the middle of June – already!  With that in mind, and the imminent arrival of summer proper, it’s clear that various governments across Europe and beyond are keen to get the vital tourism industry up and running, despite the risks. And, in certain cases, the controversy – not least in Britain where a 14-day self-isolation requirement came in this week for most air travellers, writes European Alliance for Personalised Medicine (EAPM) Executive Director Denis Horgan.

Couple this with the fact that – outside the tourism industry – plenty of places have scaled back their lockdowns, and there are understandably plenty of nerves jangling about how this will all pan out. It’s a topic that is certain to be debated during our virtual conference at the end of this month on June 30th. Entitled ‘Maintaining public trust in the use of Digital Health for science and patients’ in a COVID and post-COVID world”, it acts as a bridging event between the EU Presidencies of Croatia and Germany. Here is the link to register and view the programme.

As you would expect of an EAPM event, attendees will be drawn from leading experts in the personalised medicine arena – including patients, payers, healthcare professionals, plus industry, science, academia and the research field.

You’ll find the link to register at the end of this update…

While we all hope that there isn’t a second wave of COVID-19 infections, the expert opinion is certainly that the coronavirus is not just going to disappear. In fact, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control is currently working on guidelines for its long-term monitoring.  What’s planned among other things is for national systems to track their caseloads, monitor how effective their efforts are to fight the disease and, crucially, any gaping holes.

Lockdowns have worked, say studies

The aforementioned lockdowns have saved millions of lives, according to two studies published in the journal Nature.

Such restrictions were clearly necessary according to one of the authors – Samir Bhatt – after he and colleagues had looked at their effects in eleven European countries.  Another of the authors – Seth Flaxman – made it quite plain that the pandemic is still very much in its early stages, saying: “We are very far from herd immunity.” Flaxman believes that a second wave is very much a possibility if we suddenly now abandon all precautions. A second study, published by academics at the University of Berkeley, California, US, concluded that infections in the absence of any restrictions or precautions grew at a rate of 38% each day across the six countries they looked at.

It was almost doubling every other day. Solomon Hsiang, who worked on the report, said that had social restrictions not been imposed, “we would’ve lived through a very different April and May. It helps us understand what we’ve gotten in return for our extra collective sacrifices”. Care disruption Yet another piece of research – this time in the form of a poll – has found that nearly all people surveyed living with a rare disease experienced disruption to their care during the coronavirus outbreak.

The survey, conducted by patient group EURORDIS, included 8,551 respondents across Europe and was presented in a webinar via the European Commission’s European Reference Network. On top of this, half of respondents needing surgery had their intervention postponed or cancelled. The problem was most severe in the south of Europe, and further east. It still remains the case, we’ve learned, that 50% less heart attack patients are checking in to hospitals, due to the pandemic.

The info comes from another survey – this time by the European Society of Cardiology (ESC). It was recently published in the European Heart Journal. “This is the strongest evidence yet of the collateral damage caused by the pandemic,” said ESC President Barbara Casadei. “Fear of catching the coronavirus means even people in the midst of a life-threatening heart attack are too afraid to go to hospital for life-saving treatment.”

It could be worse…

Bad as the coronavirus situation undoubtedly is, the threat of AMR is even bigger. Without urgent action, the world will be “in an even bigger mess” in the future as a result of antimicrobial resistance. So says British economist and AMR expert Jim O’Neill. He says that the chaos that coronavirus has brought to people’s livelihoods has shattered the “artificial” separation between health matters and those involving economics and finance.

He was speaking during a briefing hosted by MEPs Tiemo Wölken and Peter Liese, adding that “In the spirit of never letting a crisis go to waste,” the COVID-19 pandemic could help ensure that AMR is on the economic policymakers’ agenda. O’Neill is particularly concerned by the “significant collapse of those active people in the biotech or early stage market”.

These biotechs are not receiving the funding they need from the EU, argued Marc Gitzinger, who is vice president of the BEAM (Biotech companies in Europe combating AntiMicrobial Resistance), and flagged up the lack of funding being awarded to SMEs. Arjon van Hengel, from DG Research, disputed this, saying that SMEs still have numerous opportunities, such as the AMR accelerator under the IMI programme. “The funding is not every year the same and therefore you see some fluctuations,” he said.

Money talks

While we’re on the subject of hard cash, Commissioner Johannes Hahn is fighting to convince his own Austrian People’s Party – plus plenty of governments in the EU – to back the Commission’s plan for a €1.1 trillion seven-year EU budget and €750 billion four-year recovery fund. Austrian Finance Minister Gernot Blümel has been quoted by Politico saying that the Berlaymont’s new proposal is not acceptable as it currently stands.  He said: “Austria’s contribution to the EU-Budget would increase by 50%, and in addition to that there is still the repayment of the Recovery Fund in due course.”

For his part, Hahn said: “I don’t see a real substantial increase,” adding that, under the Commission’s plan, like other countries, Austria would benefit from new recovery funding in 2021-2024. Hahn also said he hopes “people understand the urgency” and that a deal can be reached in the European Council in July. “We cannot waste any time.”

On the same topic, Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said: “Let’s just say we still have a lot of work to do.” “We believe a number of points in the Commission’s proposals need significant change,” and the Netherlands has “very serious concerns with the size of the fund and the way it is funded”. He also wants to ensure the new recovery funding is linked to reforms. “The budget should also be modernized, including the important linkage to the rule of law,” he said. Meanwhile, German Health Minister Jens Spahn has used the idea of a “health NATO” to describe his vision for a more co-ordinated response to crises in future. “We don’t have to create national reserves with protective masks 27 times, but we can build up a European reserve,” he said. He added that  this would be on the agenda during Berlin’s Council presidency.

Topical as ever, Spahn also called for a “European position on the necessary WHO reform”.

My country, right or wrong?

A clutch of EU member states have raised questions over the EU’s response to the coronavirus. At the same time they have urged it to improve its pandemic preparedness. “The present situation has raised questions about Europe’s preparedness for pandemics and underlined the need for a common European approach,” read a letter put together by Denmark and signed by France, Germany, Spain, Belgium and Poland. This has been sent to the European Commission. Flagged in the letter are issues concerning medical supply shortages and unco-ordinated responses to the crisis by member states.

Key proposals are creating a stockpile of critical medicines, protective gear, medical devices and vaccines, while coordinating the development of a coronavirus vaccine. As we know, plenty of organisations and individuals are calling on the EU to do more on health. Amen to that, says EAPM!

All of the above issues will be up for discussion during EAPM’s 30 June bridging conference, and you can find the link to join us here.

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