Welcome to EURACTIV’s very first Health Brief!
In this first edition, we spoke to the European Commission’s director-general for health and food safety, Sandra Gallina, to find out what is in store this autumn when it comes to health.
No room for complacency
It will come as no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic will still largely dominate the upcoming health agenda.
But while Gallina highlighted that reaching the EU’s target of having 70% of the adult population vaccinated is “cause for optimism”, she cautioned that the priority remains a full primary COVID-19 vaccination of the adult population.
“We must remain mindful that a significant proportion of the eligible population remains unvaccinated, and large differences in rate persist among member states,” she warned, stressing that these gaps “must be narrowed”.
Eyes on the prize
Gallina said booster shots remain an important topic as we face “the emergence of variants such as Delta” and the possibility of waning acquired immunity. As such, it is crucial that member states prepare and stand “ready to deploy booster vaccines if the scientific evidence shows this is the way forward,” she said.
However, the focus should first be on fully vaccinating all those who have not yet completed their recommended vaccination course, she stressed.
“Full primary COVID-19 vaccination of the adult population in the European Union remains the priority, and the topic of booster doses must not distract us from this,” she said, adding that member states must up the ante on addressing vaccine hesitancy and misinformation.
But tackling the pandemic is not only about vaccines. This autumn, the Commission is also aiming to enlarge the portfolio of authorised new COVID-19 therapeutics. As part of this, the EU executive will launch a public consultation on the Pharmaceutical Strategy, with a view to adopting it next year.
The European Health Union will also draw the lessons from the current pandemic. “It will be built upon solid foundations in the shape of stronger mandates for the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) as well as the revision of the EU cross-border health threats legislation, all of them being discussed by co-legislators this autumn,” Gallina said.
More than COVID
It might seem that the world has stopped because of the pandemic, but plans on other key health areas are still forging ahead, including Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, for which an implementation roadmap detailing the key milestones and a clear timeline will soon be published.
You can also expect a legislative proposal for amending the In Vitro Diagnostics (IVD) Medical Devices Regulation in October, which aims to avoid shortages of some critical IVD devices, and the co-legislators will also discuss this autumn the Health Technology Assessment Regulation, aiming for a final adoption by end 2021 or early 2022.
The European Commission is currently working on its legal proposal for the European Health Data Space (EHDS). According to Gallina, the aim is to help citizens access and control their own health data, but also to ease the use of data for research, policymaking, and regulatory purposes.
The legal proposal should be adopted in early 2022, she said. The Commission is also designing pilot projects aiming to help people accessing their health data on their smartphones or to test an EU digital infrastructure that allows data to be used in many areas, including research, policymaking and regulatory purposes.
Highlighting that the EU Digital COVID Certificate has represented a “showpiece in how digitalisation can have an immediate and real-world beneficial impact,” Gallina said that the Commission will now look to build on its success.
“All these measures will feed into our continued transition towards digitalisation to the benefit of more and more Europeans,” she said.
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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivered her annual State of the Union address in the European Parliament last Wednesday (15 September) in which she announced a €50 billion investment to strengthen the European health union.
Meanwhile, the European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly sent a letter to the European Commission asking for access to text messages that von der Leyen had sent to Pfizer chief Albert Bourla to conclude the purchase agreement for COVID-19 vaccines, as reported by the New York Times back in April.
The Commission is proposing a new authority to prepare against future health crises by developing “medical countermeasures.” The new Health Emergency preparedness and Response Authority (HERA) will be fully up and running by 2022, but it will not be an EU agency like the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) or the European Medicine Agency (EMA) but rather a structure within the European Commission.
Speaking of EU agencies, EU lawmakers in the European Parliament adopted the proposal to extend the mandate of the ECDC. “This is about improving preparedness and coordination of interventions to manage health challenges”, said Joanna Kopcińska, the Polish MEP who piloted the proposal through Parliament.
Lawmakers in the European Parliament asked the European Commission to come up with an action plan with “ambitious and achievable objectives, reduction targets and timelines” to phase out animal testing.
EU countries are still lagging behind in tackling Alzheimer’s disease, despite calls by the World Health Organisation for urgent action as cases in the European region are expected to double. Read the full story from EURACTIV’s European Special Report on Alzheimer’s disease.
Last week the conflict between the Greens and the Commission ended in the Commission’s favour when the Parliament sided with the Commission to approve new antimicrobials rules, designed to tackle the burgeoning issue of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). In July, Martin Häusling, MEP at Greens/EFA Group, tabled a motion objecting to the delegated act in the European Parliament’s environment committee (ENVI). However, lawmakers eventually gave their blessing to the Commission’s delegated act on Thursday (16 September).
EURACTIV took a closer look at vaccine adaptability to new virus variants. For now, vaccines are capable of dealing with SARS-CoV-2 virus variants circulating in the world. But if a vaccine-resistant variant develops, vaccines might need to be adapted to fight the new strains.
This week, the Commission delivered the 200th disinfection robot to a hospital in Barcelona. The robots donated by the Commission help sanitise COVID-19 patient rooms and are part of the Commission’s action to supply hospitals across the EU and help them cope with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Commenting on the news, Executive Vice-President for a Europe fit for the Digital Age, Margrethe Vestager, called this “European solidarity in action” and called this a “prime example of what can be achieved”.
A new pediatric study, focusing on the impact of the Pfizer COVID vaccine on children aged 5 to 11, has found that it generates a robust antibody response in children without serious safety issues. The company has now said that it will move to file for authorisation of their vaccine for use in children.
Vaccine to expire in Catalonia. Thousands of COVID-19 vaccines are about to expire in the Catalonia region (northeast of Spain) due to the slow inoculation pace and low demand, local health authorities have warned. EURACTIV’s partner EFE has more.
Vaccine bookings spiked in Italy after COVID pass extended to all employees. Bookings for coronavirus vaccines rose in Italy after the government said all employees must show proof of a jab, negative test or recent recovery from COVID-19 or be considered on unpaid leave. (EURACTIV.com with AFP).
Restrictions to be progressively eased in France. According to Health Minister Oliver Véran, the sanitary pass may no longer be compulsory in some territories. If the health situation continues to improve, “the restrictions could be progressively lightened”, the minister told Le Parisien newspaper on Sunday (19 September). (Clara Bauer-Babef | EURACTIV France)
Czechia to begin COVID-19 booster shot rollout for all. Czechia is offering a third jab to all people who completed their vaccination eight months ago, despite a recent report by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) stating that there is no urgent need for booster doses for the fully vaccinated. (Aneta Zachová | EURACTIV.cz)
Greece to closely monitor reopening of schools. The Greek National Agency for Public Health will be announcing every Wednesday separately the epidemiological data of children aged 4-17, the government spokesman announced on Monday. (Kostas Argyros | EURACTIV.gr)
Romania running out of ICU beds. With the number of coronavirus cases rising over the past weeks, Romanian hospitals are running out of beds in intensive care units (ICUs) for COVID-19 patients. (Bogdan Neagu | EURACTIV.ro)
Bulgaria launches a lottery to stimulate COVID-19 vaccination rates. Bulgaria plans to organise a lottery with prizes for those who have been vaccinated, caretaker Tourism Minister Selta Baltova announced in an interview with Nova TV, when asked if her ministry would consider implementing tourist vouchers for vaccinations as the country struggles with its very low vaccination levels. (Krassen Nikolov | EURACTIV.bg)
Belgium’s young adults face post-pandemic depression. Young adults (18-29) are still the most affected by anxiety (27%) and depressive symptoms (24.5%), while the elderly (65 years and over) are the least affected (7% and 6% respectively), a new survey by Sciensano, the national public health institute of Belgium, has shown. (Alexandra Brzozowski | EURACTIV.com)
Poland’s medical staff go on strike. For about a week, the medical staff in Poland have been on strike. The protesters are demanding to negotiate with the prime minister, who has been ignoring them. For their part, protesters refuse to negotiate with health minister Niedzielski and his assistants. “We have been discussing with the minister these past months with no results,” said Wojciech Szaraniec from the strike committee. (Piotr Macej Kaczyński | EURACTIV.pl)
Vaccine hesitancy rises. Almost 37% of citizens in Bosnia and Herzegovina do not want to get vaccinated against COVID-19, fearing unwanted side effects, showed an online survey which also found that about 51% of BiH’s population oppose the introduction of mandatory vaccination, while 30% of respondents support the idea. (Željko Trkanjec | EURACTIV.hr)
Ireland is now topping the EU list of most vaccinated. Ireland has now vaccinated 90% of over 16-year-olds, making it the EU country with the highest proportion of vaccinations, followed closely by Malta, Denmark, and Portugal, the latest data from the European Centre for Disease Control shows. (Molly Killeen | EURACTIV.com)
22-23 September | WHO Webinar: One Health Approaches to Antimicrobial Resistance-Regional and Country Experiences
23 September | New dimensions in a COVID-19 world, event organized by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (OSHA)
24 September | Health Systems after COVID-19 – how can the industry contribute to strengthened resilience, virtual event by EFPIA
24 September | Lifelong physical activity conference organised by Slovenian EU presidency
27 September | European Parliament’s health committee (ENVI)
27 September | Launch of the European Alliance for Cardiovascular Health
27 September – 1 October | European Health Forum Gastein
27 September – 3 October | European Biotech Week 2021
28 September | European Internet Forum: Digitalisation of the Health Sector