French Health Minister Olivier Véran detailed the key health priorities of the French EU Council presidency on Thursday (27 January), highlighting the launch of a new label called “European Hospital” to strengthen health systems and support cooperation across Europe. EURACTIV France reports.
In a video meeting with the European Parliament’s environmental committee, Véran presented ambitious priorities on health despite health not having so far seemed to be so high on the agenda of the French presidency, which runs from January to June.
“France will not spare its efforts,” said Véran, who also praised the previous presidency holder, Slovenia, for the results it achieved regarding “the Health Union” while it headed the Council Presidency in the second half of last year.
Unequal access to healthcare
Several MEPs, including Italian MEP Alessandra Moretti of the S&D camp, questioned Véran on unequal access to health within the EU.
“The right to health must be enshrined for all, there are still too many inequalities, especially in reproductive rights, the fight against cancer, access to hospitals, etc.”, said Moretti.
She also stressed the difficulty of access to abortion in some countries, like Poland, where it is almost forbidden, but also in her country, Italy, where some practitioners refuse to perform an abortion.
To strengthen cooperation between EU countries and better respond to public health issues, Véran said he would take the opportunity of the French presidency to create the “European Hospital” label. The label, which is voluntary, allows health institutions in the EU to create a network to converge their efforts and exchange on scientific progress.
Discussions over the project already took place on 18 January at a meeting between the EU’s 27 health ministers and EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides.
To overcome these inequalities in access to care, Moretti asked Véran to “put in place minimum access to social services”.
The problem is not new, according to Véran, who pointed out that the pandemic has highlighted inequalities in healthcare access.
With infant mortality being as much as four times higher in some EU states compared to others, and the average life expectancy being 10 years apart across the bloc, Véran said he wants an EU that is “more protective” of its citizens.
Véran also wants to strengthen European autonomy, particularly regarding medicine production. The EU is 95% dependent on India, Pakistan and China in terms of raw materials used to manufacture medicines, he added.
Many MEPs encouraged Véran on this point. “We need to support the European pharmaceutical policy to make medicines accessible to all. The EU must strengthen the use of joint markets,” said Moretti.
COVID-19 and the lifting of patents
As Europe is being hit by the Omicron variant, MEPs also asked questions about COVID-19 vaccines.
“Why not develop a vaccine that works against the other variants, not just the omicron variant?” asked MEP Peter Liesse of the conservative EPP group.
Véran stressed the ability of pharmaceutical companies to adapt to new variants, recalling that Europe was the leading producer and exporter of vaccine doses and that this would continue thanks to the COVAX scheme, an international initiative to ensure access to vaccines globally.
Asked whether he was in favour of lifting patents, the French health minister first replied that there were “no ideological barriers to sharing vaccines”.
He then questioned the “capacity of developing countries to produce a messenger RNA vaccine”, particularly in terms of logistics, as well as the difficulty for these countries to “structure a health system that can provide doses and vaccinate the population”.
This is why Véran is eager to expand the COVAX mechanism, the results of which are not yet “satisfactory”. However, the goal of vaccinating the world appears to be clear.
Cancer control and vaccine pass
Véronique Trillet-Lenoir of the centrist Renew Europe group questioned Véran on the fight against cancer, another major EU public health issue. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in Europe, with more than 1.4 million people dying in 2019, the MEP, who is also a member of the special committee on the fight against cancer (BECA), recalled.
This will be a major issue for the French presidency, said Véran, who noted that “40% of cancers are avoidable if more emphasis is put on prevention”.
Green MEP Michelle Rivasi and Identity and Democracy MEP Jöelle Mélin took advantage of Véran’s presence to criticise France’s introduction of the vaccine pass, which replaced the previous sanitary pass on 24 January.
According to Rivasi, there is no justification for the use of such a pass when the EU digital certificate already exists. For Mélin, the vaccination pass “undermines medical confidentiality”.
Véran declined to tackle national policy in the European Parliament but stressed that the vaccine pass is a member state issue.
Other health on the table during the French presidency include mental health, digital health – in particular via the European Health Data Space – as well as EU legislation on blood, tissues and cells, as well as on serious cross-border threats.
“These are subjects on which France will be mobilised,” said Véran, who only has five months to fulfil his ambitions.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]