The COVID crisis has scrambled the EU’s priorities when it comes to health. But while all eyes have been on COVID-19, European institutions have been carrying on their “silent battle” against an older enemy: cancer.
Despite making up less than 10% of the world’s population, Europe accounts for almost a quarter of global cancer cases.
In 2020 alone, 2.7 million people in the EU were diagnosed with cancer, while 1.3 million people lost their lives to it.
So it came as no surprise when Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that the fight against cancer would be one of the main focuses in the mandate of her Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides.
“I want you to put forward Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan to support member states to improve cancer prevention and care,” wrote Kyriakides in her mission letter dated 1 December 2019.
But almost two years after that time, the road ahead still seems long.
On 29 September, announcing a new cancer mission under the EU’s research programme, Horizon Europe, Kyriakides remarked that even before the pandemic, cancer was set to become the leading cause of death in the EU by 2035.
“Since then, we have learned that nearly 1 million cancer cases could be undiagnosed across Europe because of COVID-19. Around 100 million screenings have not been carried out. This means later stage diagnosis and possibly less chance of survival,” she added.
Clearly, while the pandemic brought many things to a standstill, the fight against cancer did not, and can not, stop.
With that in mind, in this week’s Health Brief, we give an overview of the Commission’s plans to tackle this deadly disease, as outlined so far.
Fulfilling the mission
On 3 February this year, a Beating Cancer Plan – based on four key pillars – prevention, early diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up care – was unveiled.
As part of efforts to tackle cancer holistically, the plan is supported by actions spanning across policy areas ranging from employment, education, social policy to agriculture and the environment.
The €4 billion flagship plan is also a key pillar of the European Health Union, presented by President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in November 2020 as part of creating a more secure, resilient and better-prepared EU.
“Europe’s beating cancer plan is in motion, activities are going along and actions are going along on all the pillars,” Kyriakides said recently.
The first cornerstone of the plan was laid last June with the launch of the Knowledge Center on cancer within the Commission’s Joint research centre.
The mission against cancer
As mentioned before, a new EU’s research mission was announced last week (29 September) to back up the fight against cancer.
“Together with the cancer plan the mission will work to improve the lives of more than 3 million people by 2030. Through prevention and cure, and solutions to live longer and better,” said Kyriakides.
She added that both the European cancer imaging initiative and the European health data space will lean heavily on research carried out under the cancer mission.
But that is not all.
Both the mission and the cancer plan will work together activating the financial support from the €4 billion the EU’s have set aside for Europe’s beating cancer plan.
That includes setting up a network of comprehensive cancer centers, one of the recommendations of the mission and the flagship action which will work closely together.
Moreover, the EU platform to understand cancer, will be launched under the mission to help improve understanding of how cancers initiate, develop and spread.
“And we’re advancing with steady steps and the update of the Council recommendation on cancer screening. The mission is supporting our work to optimise screening programs,” Kyriakides added.
Another player in flattening the cancer cases curve in the EU is the European Parliament’s Special Committee on Beating Cancer (BECA) committee.
“The coming 12 months will be dedicated to establish a set of concrete recommendations for the member states and the EU institutions in order to strengthen our resilience against cancer. I am confident that we will deliver on this task,” said Bartosz Arłukowicz, Chair of the BECA Committee in September 2020.
BECA’s main goal is to identify legislation and measures that can help prevent and control cancer and also assess how research can be effectively supported.
In June BECA’s rapporteur’s Véronique Trillet-Lenoir’s report on strengthening Europe in the fight against cancer – towards a comprehensive and coordinated strategy was released calling for action in several areas, such as cancer prevention, inclusive screening and others. The report is currently awaiting the committee’s decision.
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EURACTIV France’s Clara Bauer-Babef is in Strasbourg this week for the European Parliament plenary, where MEPs have still a beef with the Commission after being excluded from the creation of the new Health Emergency preparedness and Response Authority (HERA).
French liberal MEP Véronique Trillet-Lenoir told Clara that HERA is a way for the EU to regain its sovereignty over medicines, but added a criticism that the project is “unbalanced” as it gives more power to the Commission and not enough to the Parliament.
“All that was achieved during the COVID-19 pandemic was thanks to the collaboration between the Commission and the Parliament,” she pointed out.
Fellow Renew Europe MEP Chrysoula Zacharopoulou added that HERA is being transformed into an “internal service of the Commission, into a technocratic tool”.
“Allow me to refer to Greek mythology: today I feel betrayed, betrayed like HERA by her husband Zeus. Betrayed both in terms of ambition and method,” she said.
“We have worked together throughout this crisis as partners and we are at a fundamental moment in building a Europe of health. How then can we explain the President’s decision to exclude the representatives of European citizens?” she criticised.
Likewise, the Green MEP Michèle Rivasi said that “HERA will be a satellite of the Commission, not an independent agency.”
This means that it will be run by member states and the Commission, while the Parliament will just have an observer role.
“The Commission says ‘we have to go fast,’ but I say ‘it has to be a real independent agency’,” she continued.
Speaking on behalf of the far-right group, MEP Joëlle Mélin said that the group opposes a system that claims to copy a US governmental agency, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA).
“The system is the bearer of an immense naivety in the face of the potential chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defence (CBRN) risks, as the delay in this field was flagrant with the COVID crisis.”
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) published its Rapid Risk Assessment on 30 September, which warned that countries that have not yet achieved high enough COVID-19 vaccination coverage in their total populations run a high risk of experiencing a significant increase in cases, hospitalisations and deaths from now until the end of November.
Andrea Ammon, director of ECDC, said that forecasts show that a combination of high vaccination coverage and effective contact reduction is crucial for reducing the risk of a high COVID-19 burden on healthcare systems this autumn.
–EMA’s human medicines committee (CHMP) has concluded that an extra dose of the COVID-19 vaccines Comirnaty (BioNTech/Pfizer) and Spikevax (Moderna) may be given to people with severely weakened immune systems, but must be at least 28 days after their second dose.
When it comes to boosters for the general public, booster doses may be considered at least 6 months after the second dose for people aged 18 years and older.
-Two doses of Pfizer-BioNTech are 90% effective against COVID-19 hospitalizations for all variants, including the Delta variant, for at least six months, according to a new study from Kaiser Permanente and Pfizer published in The Lancet.
Effectiveness against all SARS-COV-2 infections declined over the study period, falling from 88% within one month after receiving two vaccine doses to 47% after six months. However, effectiveness against hospitalisations remained at 90% overall and for all variants.
The importance of education and awareness-raising on skin cancer has been stressed at this year’s European Academy of Dermatology and Venerology (EADV) Congress, which took place last week. During the congress, the EADV welcomed the Beating Cancer Plan but asked for skin cancer to be recognised as an occupational disease, as well as for the registration of skin cancer cases across Europe to be improved to detect risk groups.
Several studies were presented at the congress, including one on chronic spontaneous urticaria and on vaccine hesitancy in psoriasis patients. A survey presented by the EADV also showed that almost half of the European general population over 18 years old declared at least one dermatological condition in the past 12 months.
The European Health Forum Gastein ended on 1 October. On the last day, a discussion on a new social contract for a resilient recovery took place, which focused on the need to develop more resilient societies. Panellists also suggested that the One Health approach should be integrated into the governance system to ensure societies are better prepared for future health threats.
Fans to return to Spain’s stadiums in full force as COVID-19 cases dip. Football stadiums will return to full capacity this weekend for the first time since the COVID-19 lockdown last year, the country’s health ministry said Wednesday (29 September). (Fernando Heller EuroEFE.EURACTIV.es)
Romanian government changes COVID-19 rules as incidence rate surpasses threshold. As the 14-day COVID-19 incidence rate in Bucharest went over the six per 1,000 persons threshold, the government decided to change some of the rules. (Bogdan Neagu | EURACTIV.ro)
Romania records high number of COVID-19 cases. Romania’s health authorities reported more than 12,000 new COVID-19 infections on Thursday (30 September), the highest number of cases reported in a day since the debut of the pandemic. Meanwhile, the government will discuss easing some restrictions for the vaccinated to access restaurants, gyms or theatres even if the incidence rate increases. (Bogdan Neagu | EURACTIV.ro)
Slovenia suspends use of J&J coronavirus vaccine. Slovenia on Wednesday (29 September) suspended the use of the single-shot coronavirus vaccine produced by Johnson & Johnson after a twenty-year-old woman died two weeks after receiving the shot. This development risks undermining Slovenia’s already slow vaccine uptake fuelled by a potent anti-vaccination movement. (Sebastijan R. Maček | STA)
Slovenian Constitutional Court thwarts tightening of COVID pass conditions. The Constitutional Court has stayed a government decree under which public administration employees would have to either be vaccinated or have recovered from the virus to come to work from 1 October. Senior government officials have already accused judges of being complicit in future COVID-19-related deaths. (Ela Petrovčič | STA)
France to reimburse consultations with psychologists from 2022. French President Emmanuel Macron announced a series of “historic” measures at a mental health and psychiatry conference on Tuesday (28 September). They include the reimbursement of sessions with psychologists subject to medical prescription. (Clara Bauer-Babef | EURACTIV.fr)
EU COVID certificate scheme extended to Irish citizens in Northern Ireland. Irish passport holders who reside and have been vaccinated in Northern Ireland can apply for the EU’s digital COVID certificate from Thursday (30 September).This allows them to travel more freely throughout the EU. (Molly Killeen | EURACTIV.com
4 October – 7 October | European Parliament’s plenary
6-7 October September | World Drug Safety Congress Europe 2021 in Amsterdam
6-8 October | Medicines for Europe and International Generic and Biosimilar Medicines Association Conference in Athens
6-8 October | European Emergency Number Association Conference in Riga
10 October | Digital transformation for informed decision making in healthcare in Ljubljana, organized by EFPIA
10 October | World Mental Health Day
11 October | Achieving Equity and Innovation in Newborn Screening and in Familial Hypercholesterolemia Pediatric screening across Europe, virtual conference organized by the Slovenian Presidency of the EU
11-12 October | Meeting of the European Parliament Health Committee (ENVI)
11-22 October | Pharma 2021, Reuters event
12 October | Informal meeting of EU health ministers
12 October | European Brain Summit in Brussels