EU health agenda: More than Corona

The EU cancer plan remains the flagship commitment of the von der Leyen Commission, although the COVID-crisis has diverted attention over the past few months. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

This article is part of our special report All aboard: EU policy train builds up steam after summer.

The EU executive is expected to finally get to the heart of its five-year health agenda with the unveiling of Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan and the much-awaited pharmaceutical strategy. The launch of both initiatives was confirmed for the fourth quarter of 2020 in the Commission’s latest working programme.

The EU cancer plan remains the flagship commitment of the von der Leyen Commission when it comes to public health, although the COVID-crisis understandably diverted attention over the past few months

The actions set out in the plan will aim to support, coordinate and even supplement member states’ efforts at every stage of cancer care, including prevention and quality of life of survivors.

A 33-MEP special committee on Beating Cancer (BECA) with a 12-month mandate was established in the European Parliament in June and will give its contribution to the matter.

BECA’s main goal is to iden­ti­fy­ leg­is­la­tion and mea­sures that can help pre­vent and con­trol can­cer, also con­sid­er­ing how research can be effec­tively sup­ported.

However, the EU health agenda in the forthcoming seven-year budget has been undermined by the heavy cuts to the proposed €9.4 billion EU4Health Programme, which has been reduced to €1.7 billion after pressure from the so-called frugal countries during July’s EU summit.

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The President of the European Commission launched an EU-wide public consultation on Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan on Tuesday (4 February), announcing an EU-wide “open health data space” in support of research, prevention and cure.

Bringing back drugs manufacturing to Europe?

Even before Stella Kyriakides’ formal appointment as Health Commissioner, the pharmaceutical strategy was listed as a high priority in her mission letter.

The Cypriot Commissioner was originally asked to deliver a set of measures to tackle issues like unequal access to medicines, unaffordable prices and aligning innovation with public health needs.

However, the COVID crisis has exposed some flaws in the European health systems, such as shortages of medicines caused by an over-reliance on Asiatic production. There are several solutions to reduce dependency on non-EU countries and the Commission has to decide where to focus on.

Possible actions range from preventive storage of strategic medicines to the diversification of supply, including the relocation of drugs manufacturing to Europe.

Other available alternatives include incentivised forms of production for certain products, such as antibiotics, or mandatory indication of origin for the active substances (API) contained in medicines, in order to improve their transparency.

In the feedbacks sent to the Commission so far, two different approaches emerge, with EU governments pushing for re-shoring the production, while the industry is more likely to increase capacity building of the existing infrastructures.

Speaking before the European Parliament’s health committee (ENVI), German minister Jens Spahn mentioned increasing EU production of essential medicinal products and devices, such as face masks, among the top priorities of the current EU presidency.

Commission aims to bring back medicine production to Europe

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 (22 April).

Digitalisation

Promoting the creation of a European Health Data Space is also a key aim for the German presidency, as Spahn emphasised that digitalisation offers great opportunities for both the coronavirus pandemic and other areas of healthcare provision.

The digitalisation of healthcare has taken on new importance in the wake of the COVID pandemic, where information and resource sharing has been of paramount importance to improve detection, surveillance and patients’ care. This is reflected in the post-coronavirus recovery plan.

But the key challenge is to balance the needs of different users and actors in the system, including healthcare providers, researchers, private companies, and policymakers, whilst simultaneously protecting citizens’ data.

The Commission is currently working with the member states and stakeholders to define the best governance structure and set up the appropriate infrastructure.

The GDPR has provided a legal framework for processing health data, including across borders. However, with health being a member state competence, there remain many different national rules that make health data sharing over EU borders challenging.

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Coronavirus: vaccine and fighting disinformation

With regard to coronavirus, the focus will be mostly on the race to find an anti-COVID vaccine, as well as on tackling misinformation regarding vaccines in a bid to encourage people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 once the vaccine becomes available.

The Commission adopted a European Vaccines Strategy on 17 June, aiming to secure high-quality, safe, effective and affordable vaccines for all European citizens within 12 to 18 months.

To do so, the Commission is working with member states to agree on advance purchase agreements with vaccine producers which reserve member states the right to buy a given number of vaccine doses for a certain price when a vaccine becomes available.

The approaching influenza season will also put an ‘added strain’ on the healthcare system, according to Dr Hans Kluge, World Health Organisation’s Regional Director for Europe,.

He cautioned recently that campaigns for COVID vaccination must be accompanied by a renewed effort to encourage the uptake of normal influenza vaccines, as well as a robust monitoring system for flu activity.

Coalition of countries aims to keep COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing in Europe

On the eve of the European Commission’s Vaccines Strategy launch, four EU countries clinched a deal with Anglo-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca for the supply of a potential COVID-19 vaccine in a bid to keep production in Europe.

On the EU radar

The Health Technology assessments (HTA) is also part of the unfinished business to be carried over, as the controversial piece of legislation was further slowed down by the outbreak of COVID-19

HTA aimed to help EU countries decide on pricing and reimbursement by health insurers or health systems, but the file has been stuck in the Council of ministers, turning the assessment of new drugs’ added therapeutic value or innovation into one of the thorniest problems in the sector.

On 21 August, the Commission decided to register a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) entitled ‘Right to Cure’, which calls on the EU “to put public health before private profit [and] make anti-pandemic vaccines and treatments a global public good, freely accessible to everyone.”

Within the next six months, the organisers can start a one-year process of collecting signatures of support.

Should the ECI receive one million statements of support within a year from at least seven different member states, the Commission will have to react within six months.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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