Horizon Europe – A global health prescription for the EU

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

EU ministers need to show that the bloc is still serious about tackling poverty related diseases. [Shutterstock]

EU research and innovation ministers need to increase funding for Horizon Europe and show they are serious about combating poverty-related diseases, says Cécile Vernant.

Cécile Vernant is the head of EU office for Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevoelkerung (DSW).

When EU research ministers sit down in Vienna for their informal council meeting on July 17, you could forgive them for not focusing on their portfolios, given the crises consuming Europe. Brexit, Migration, political instability, and the rise of populists, and a looming fight on the shape and size of the EU’s next seven-year budget (the MFF).

However, the MFF negotiations do not have to be a crisis, but an opportunity. Research and innovation is that opportunity – an area ripe for pan-European collaboration, putting Europe’s excellence in science to work to tackle the world’s major challenges, some of which are at the centre of the issues affecting the EU.

There are fewer challenges more pressing, more in need of European leadership, and holding more opportunity for real impact, than the fight to improve global health and defeat diseases of poverty.

These diseases – HIV & AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and other poverty-related neglected diseases – affect over a billion people around the world. The growing threat of drug-resistant strains of these diseases – like tuberculosis – mean these diseases are increasingly a health threat for Europe.

These diseases continue to trap individuals, families and communities in a ruthless cycle of poverty. European governments have committed to stopping this cycle by ending the epidemics of HIV & AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria by 2030 as part of the Sustainable Development Goals, but with the tools we have at our disposal now, that deadline is hopelessly optimistic.

We need a revolution in global health research that will deliver new drugs, new vaccines, new preventive methods, and new diagnostic tools essential to rolling back these diseases.

The only way to make sure that these essential new tools exist is through more investments and better cooperation in global health research. In an era of increasingly uncertain international leadership, European politicians have a responsibility to step up and deliver this investment effectively, through better policy and improved coordination.

The European Commission has already made the first move, announcing its “Horizon Europe” plan for EU research in June 2018. This plan proposes a budget of €94 billion for R&D, and includes plans for specific action on infectious diseases and what the European Commission calls “global challenges”.

This was a small first step, but European governments need to make the next giant leap. Increasing the budget for the health research cluster in Horizon Europe, which is projected to receive a smaller chunk of the next research budget relative to the current framework, is the single most important thing that EU ministers could do to show that Europe is serious about making major scientific breakthroughs.

Since the European Commission’s MFF announcement, many European governments have been highly vocal about the importance of research and innovation in maintaining Europe’s competitive edge.

Global health research is the perfect policy field to advance this agenda, building as it does on existing EU excellence, and having the potential to not only save lives and improve people’s wellbeing but also to attract investment and highly-skilled employment into Europe.

If EU research ministers are serious about innovation, when they meet in Vienna this week there are a few simple steps they can already take. They can call for a more ambitious budget for Horizon Europe as a whole – from €94bn to €120bn –and increase the funding aimed at health research. They must also acknowledge that tackling diseases of poverty needs a comprehensive and strategic approach, including through R&D partnerships and in the mooted research missions.

It’s not just money that’s needed. Retooling Horizon Europe to make it more effective to fight against diseases of poverty means a reformed ambitious third phase of the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP), a key EU instrument supporting life-saving research.

It means developing a European strategy on global health that makes sure there is enough coordination between national, EU and international work. It means mainstreaming all three dimensions of sustainable development, and in particular neglected societal challenges, into all parts of a future Horizon Europe.

European leaders are constantly reiterating their desire for Europe to be big on big things, and small on small things. It does not get much bigger than the global fight against diseases of poverty, where collaboration at the EU level is positive, necessary, and cost-efficient.

Europe’s leaders have a chance, over the next twelve months, to determine their, and Europe’s, legacy to the wider world for the next decade or more. What better way to demonstrate that European leadership is alive and well than leading the charge to end the epidemics of HIV & AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and other diseases of poverty.

And that charge starts now.

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