Lawmakers vote to strengthen response to cross-border health threats

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The Parliament on Wednesday (3 July) voted to strengthen legislation on the EU's alert and response system to pandemics. The text introduces an early-warning system, facilitates the joint purchase of vaccines and will make it possible to declare an EU-wide emergency in the event of a crisis.

Communicable diseases and health threats caused by chemical or biological agents, or environmental events, do not respect borders, which is why the EU wants to be at the forefront of coordination of action if one emerges.

The European Commission's assessment of past public health crises, such as the 2009 H1N1 flu epidemic or the e.coli crisis in 2011 revealed shortcomings in the health security framework currently in place.

The gaps identified were notably in risk assessment, preparedness and response planning and crisis management.

MEPs have voted for an introduction of a scheme that will enable EU countries to buy medicines jointly and thus more cheaply. It should also ensure fairer access to vaccines.

During the 2009 H1N1 flu epidemic, EU states competed with each other to procure vaccines that were available only in limited quantities. 

"This is without a doubt the greatest achievement under this decision," said Gilles Pargneaux, a French MEP who drafted the Parliament's opinion on the proposal for the Socialists and Democrats (S&D).

"Access to vaccines will be fairer because they will be available at fairer prices. This is welcome progress, particularly in the smaller member states which simply could not afford the exorbitant prices charged during the recent pandemics," he added.

Faster EU emergency response

Health Commissioner Tonio Borg said people in Europe would be better protected from a wide range of health threats through strengthened preparedness planning and coordination.

"One of the key achievements of the decision is that it establishes the legal basis for the coordination of voluntary joint procurement of vaccines and medicines at EU level. We will start with the procurement of pandemic vaccines: the member states who participate in this process will be able to provide their citizens with vaccines under better conditions than in the past," Borg said.

The text also introduces the possibility of declaring a European "public health emergency" to accelerate the authorisation of medicines needed to combat the crisis.

Current legislation requires the EU to wait until the World Health Organisation (WHO) declares an international emergency on all continents.

As some recent epidemics were linked to viral strains of avian or porcine origin, the text aims to ensure that preparedness and response planning in the veterinary and human health sectors are interoperable.

Background

EU policy seeks to protect Europeans from a wide range of serious health threats that have impacts across national borders and so may be more effectively tackled by Europe-wide cooperation than by individual EU governments acting alone.

These threats can come from agents that cause communicable diseases or other biological or chemical agents, or be environmental, for example caused by climate change.

EU action is largely about promoting coordination between member governments, for example through guidelines or sharing best practice.

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