Franco-German couple sets eyes on EU health sovereignty

epa08430538 French President Emmanuel Macron (L) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) during a joint video press conference at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, 18 May 2020. France and Germany discussed Europe?s economic recovery plans to respond to the virus crisis. Germany and France propose a 500-billion-euro European programme to support the economic recovery following the coronavirus crisis. EPA-EFE/ANDREAS GORA / POOL [EPA-EFE/GORA]

A joint COVID-19 recovery proposal put forward by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday (18 May) calls for a new European approach to health crises, aiming for greater EU sovereignty on medical products and pharmaceuticals.

The EU needs a “Health Strategy” to take back control of medicine and vaccine production in Europe, the Franco-German couple said in a five-point plan to restart the European economy after the COVID-19 crisis.

“We strive for a strategically positioned European healthcare industry which will, in full respect of the Member States’ responsibility for their social security and healthcare systems, upgrade the European dimension of healthcare and reduce EU dependency,” says the text of the initiative.

The Franco-German proposal also suggests increasing European capacity on research and development for vaccines and treatments, with the short-term goal of developing a coronavirus vaccine in Europe and ensure its global access.

The head of the EU’s medicines agency (EMA), Guido Rasi, is more cautious about the prospects of producing a vaccine in Europe, however.

“Unfortunately, when we will be in a position to grant an authorisation for the use of vaccines in Europe, we cannot at the same time grant that the availability will be here,” he told the European Parliament’s health committee on Monday (18 May).

The only tool to address the issue of availability at the moment is the joint procurement system of the Commission, Rasi added.

Vaccine hesitancy creates concern in the fight against COVID-19

Scepticism about adverse effects and actual lack of efficacy in immunisation practices can become an important negative factor when a vaccine against coronavirus becomes available, according to the head of the EU’s medicines agency (EMA), Guido Rasi.

France and Germany also called on establishing a common strategic stock of medicines and medical products such as protective equipment and testing kits, encouraging the production capacity of these products in the EU.

Last Month, the EU’s health commissioner Stella Kyriakides said it has become abundantly clear that Europe needs to increase the production of medicines and stimulate drug innovation within its borders.

The Cypriot commissioner said the EU executive will include a proposal to bring the production of medicines and pharmaceutical ingredients back to Europe in the pharmaceutical strategy expected to be released at the end of this year.

During the crisis, non-European countries have put in place some protectionist measures such as export bans on critical medicines used for the treatment of COVID-19, which has forced the Commission to go through diplomatic channels, asking Indian authorities to lift an 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.

A draft of the upcoming German presidency’s priorities stressed that it is “essential” to strengthen the global competitiveness of the pharmaceutical sector and “ensure access to innovative medicines.”

“With regard to the Commission’s project for a new European pharmaceutical strategy, we want to discuss concrete measures within the framework of our Council Presidency (…) on how to prevent supply bottlenecks for pharmaceuticals in the EU, secure supply chains and avoid dependencies in the production of active ingredients,” the document reads.

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The coronavirus crisis comes just as Germany was about to finalise its rotating EU presidency programme, which begins on 1 July. EURACTIV Germany obtained a draft of the programme, which shows how much of a role the virus is set to play during the six month stint in charge.

The EU should also speak with one voice to the pharmaceutical industry when it comes to procurement policies regarding future vaccines and treatments, the Franco-German initiative continues.

Another lesson to be learned from the COVID-19 crisis is the lack of comparable statistics on health, which according to Paris and Berlin should lead to establishing common European standards for health data interoperability.

Lastly, the Franco-German couple are asking to set up an EU Health Task Force within the European Centre for Disease and Prevention and Control (ECDC) and mandate it to develop prevention and reaction plans against future epidemics, in cooperation with national health institutions.

Last week, Kyriakides said that EU medical agencies such as ECDC and EMA should be rewarded in the next EU long-term budget, which is expected to be presented on 27 May.

“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 EU’s next seven-year budget.

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).

(Edited by Frédéric Simon)

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