Commission aims to bring back medicine production to Europe

Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides speaking at a plenary session in March. [EP/MARVAUX]

The EU needs to focus on ways to bring the production of medicines and pharmaceutical ingredients back to Europe to avoid a future recurrence of shortages experienced during the COVID-19 crisis, the EU health boss Stella Kyriakides told MEPs on Tuesday (21 April).

“It has become abundantly clear that we need to work towards the need for increasing the production of medicines and innovation within the EU,” she said while speaking before the European Parliament’s health committee (ENVI).

The Cypriot Commissioner said the EU executive will include this proposal in the pharmaceutical strategy expected to be released at the end of this year.

Together with the Industry Commissioner Thierry Breton, Kyriakides wrote a letter urging the industry to increase the production of life-saving medicines in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.

However, the problem is exacerbated by some protectionist measures put in place by third countries such as export bans on critical medicines used for the treatment of COVID-19.

She said that, in the midst of the crisis, the Commission had to go through diplomatic channels, asking Indian authorities to lift the export ban on paracetamol and 12 other active pharmaceutical ingredients.

With the supply chain spanning several continents these days, European pharmaceutical companies have their products manufactured in India, while 70% of the underlying active ingredients come from China.

Europe's dependence on medicine imports

Most of the drugs sold worldwide come from India and China, where production is cheapest. As a result, Europe’s supply of medicines is in the hands of a few companies. EURACTIV Germany reports.

National stockpiling and export bans are also being put in place by some member states, raising concerns for the functioning of the supply chain of critical medicines used in the context of COVID-19.

On 8 April, the Commission published a set of guidelines on the optimal and rational supply of medicines, meant to prevent shortages during the COVID-19 outbreak and preserve the integrity of the single market.

Kyriakides told lawmakers she is closely monitoring the situation and stressed that the EU executive had repeatedly called for lifting any kind of export ban, writing more than 15 letters to member states on the matter so far.

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Health as EU competence

Coronavirus has become a life-changing factor for everyone, Kyriakides said, affecting the future of the EU in many different ways.

“COVID-19 will be with us for a long time and I want this to be clear: we have to learn to live with it until effective vaccines and therapeutics have been found and deployed,” she warned.

She highlighted the limits of the Commission’s action when it comes to public health, which remains mostly a member states’ competence.

“I already stated my view: we need more EU where public health is concerned. And I hope this will be a discussion that we’ll be having in the future,” she said.

The support to the health systems and their resilience will be also an important part of the Commission’s new proposal for the EU long-term budget (MFF), which will be presented on 29 April.

“We need to ensure that, if we have a new pandemic, we’re able to deal with it,” Kyriakides said, highlighting the renewed importance of health in the MFF.

The tough containment measures taken across Europe have slowed the virus spread and helped to flatten the curve, proving the importance of those restrictive actions, she stressed.

She added that although there has been some reassuring news over the last two weeks, Europe is facing an evolving stage of the pandemic and “we must plan carefully the days ahead.”

As the issue is now the coordination among member states on how to gradually ease lockdown measures, the Commission presented a roadmap last week (15 April).

Kyriakides called the roadmap a “living document”, saying we are still at an evolving stage of this pandemic and we are almost experimenting with the way forward, but it is very important that member states continue to communicate with one another.

Kyriakides also acknowledged that member states showed a lack of coordination when the threat of COVID-19 wasn’t that clear, but that the Commission has recently seen extraordinary amounts of solidarity.

“I don’t think that anyone was in a position to imagine the huge impact it would have on everyday lives,” she said.

She recalled that the Commission’s first joint procurement, launched at the end of January, drew very little interest from member states because there were still no cases in many of them.

“From the beginning, my call to the member states has been one of solidarity and coordination, it is extremely clear that no one can deal with COVID-19 alone,” she concluded.

'Game-changing' vaccine against COVID-19 could still be a year away

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[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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