EU health budget talks continue against #COVID-19 backdrop

Greeting, colleagues – on a day when it has been announced that global coronavirus infections have topped eight million, with COVID-19 now spreading fastest in Latin America, writes European Alliance for Personalised Medicine (EAPM) Executive Director Denis Horgan.

In Europe, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government have come under fire for the way the outbreak has been handled there, with at least one expert claiming that, had the lockdown been introduced a week earlier than it actually was, then half of the lives lost would have been saved.

Difficult to prove, of course, but what isn’t is the added factor that the pharmaceutical industry has warned the country that stockpiles of medical supplies have been “used up entirely” by the coronavirus pandemic.

Industry has therefore urged the government to buy and store “critical” medicines to treat the virus, as they fear that stockpiles cannot realistically be rebuilt without a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU.

Of course, we now also know that trade talks between the two will not be extended beyond the end of the year. So, once again, the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier’s “clock is ticking”. This time faster than ever.

On the whole, however, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) says that the implementation of lockdowns and social distancing policies around Europe significantly reduced the spread of the pandemic. 

Since 9 June, the 14-day incidence in the EU, the European Economic Area and – yes – Britain declined by 80% of what was the peak on 8 April. 

“The initial wave of transmission has passed its peak in all countries apart from Poland and Sweden,” the ECDC said, adding the important proviso that: “The pandemic is not over, and hypothetical forecasting indicates a rise in cases is likely in the coming weeks.”

More generally, it turns out that the way countries have dealt with the pandemic has affected trust and confidence. For example, the latest Democracy Perception Index, which is a 53-country survey of more than 120,000 respondents, showed that only a third of people across the globe felt that America had a good response to the pandemic, while 60% said China did. 

Catch up at conference

Plenty of things to talk about, clearly then, at EAPM’s upcoming virtual conference on 30 June. Entitled Maintaining public trust in the use of Big Data for health science in a COVID and post-COVID world, it acts as a bridging event between the EU Presidencies of Croatia and Germany.

Alongside our many great speakers, 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.

Here is the link to register.

Meanwhile, dear reader, what else has been happening in our sector? Here’s a selection…

Commission health plans

The Commission is gradually putting together and revealing its health plans. And EAPM supporter  Romanian MEP Cristian-Silviu Bușoi is keeping an eye on it more than most as rapporteur for the health programme budget in the Parliament.

The MEP recently ran a Zoom seminar on the Commission’s €9.4 billion measure, of which hes currently a supporter.

He noted that there are plenty of major health crises beyond coronavirus, including antimicrobial resistance and non-communicable diseases, adding that any cash should be used to make EU health systems more “resilient”.

Bușoi pointed out that most of the €9.4 billion health budget is front-loaded, meaning proposals need to be very concrete and clear.

For her part, MEP Sara Cerdas has said its “unfortunate” that it took the the emergence of COVID-19 for the Commission to boost the health budget.

Meanwhile, German Health Minister Jens Spahn has already called for a “health NATO”, while six EU member states have expressed concern that we’re not ready for any future pandemic.

As it turns out, nearly all EU health ministers/national diplomats welcome the new standalone health programme EU4Health, with its drastically increased budget from the €413 million in the Commissions 2018 proposal.

For example, Frances Secretary for Child Protection Adrien Taquet said: “This ambitious programme…sends a strong signal to our European citizens and on our intention to make health a priority.” 

Member states have also given the Commission the go-ahead to buy vaccines on their behalf, spending more than €2 billion on advance purchase agreements of coronavirus vaccines while theyre being tested.

More EU influence on health? The debate continues…

Of course, the sub-text currently running as the pandemic itself runs on is the idea of giving more influence in health for the EU.

The European Peoples Party has now adopted a proposal going calling for “EU Health Sovereignty”, which says it wants “an EU that is capable of empowering member states to “prevent and manage future health crises in a more co-ordinated manner, while becoming less dependent on others.”

Key aspects are avoiding future shortages, improving access to and availability of health data, and strengthening the EUs role in global health.

And the Commission’s VP for Promoting the European Way of Life, Margaritis Schinas, likes Spahns health NATO idea, but “we should proceed by stages”, he said.

Schinas told Politico: “We will be tested whether this drive of the EU sovereignty on health will emerge when the vaccine will come or how the vaccine will come.” 

Then “it will be tested again in our new pharmaceutical strategy to make sure that pharmaceutical industry can produce what we need” and then again when the EU will have to “revisit our industrial and production model to see why at these critical moments, Europe did not have masks or ventilators or paracetamol”.

Over and above, the idea of giving the EU more power in health still has to overcome predictable objections caused by the closely guarded member state competence. 

The Commission says its proposals are staying within the treaties, but EU states are on the look-out, with national capitals already saying they want a bigger role in implementing the EU4Health programme.

Roland Driece, who is director of international affairs at the Dutch health ministry, said: “Its important to also keep member states in the drivers seat…The proposed role of member states in the execution of the programme seems too limited.”

He was essentially backed by Ireland and Denmark, with the Czech Republic warning that the Commissions proposal went too far by overstepping its health competence.

Czech Deputy Minister of Health Radek Policar said: “Were concerned that some activities of the program might not respect exclusive competencies.

“Theres no doubt that the activities improving health systems’ resilience and sustainability must be supported,” but he added that healthcare systems are a member state competence.

Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides has insisted that countries will get their say, telling them and us: “Member states will be involved at many different levels and programme objectives.”

Kyriakides however argued that theres been a “gap between what citizens have expected and what the EU could do in terms of health”.

Sticking with Jens Spahn for a moment, he recently presented the German Council presidencys health plans at the informal Health Council, with his ambitions for a “health NATO” a key factor – especially in respect of the health budget.

SANTE on future health threats

DG SANTEs Deputy Director-General Martin Seychell has said we need to use the current slowdown on the virus’s spread to plan ahead. 

He said: “We don’t know how long this quieter period will be, but we need to use it to prepare for a second wave and for future health threats.”

He explained that using electronic health records, data analytics and artificial intelligence could vital to detecting and stopping any virus resurgences. 

He also said that more work needs to be done on building up stockpiling and manufacturing capacity of stores of medical equipment.

That’s it for now – don’t forget the EAPM conference!  Here is that link again!

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