Von der Leyen announces €50 billion health mission to strengthen EU health union

EP Plenary session - State of the European Union debate [Frederic MARVAUX/EP]

This article is part of our special report #SOTEU: Key issues from von der Leyen’s annual speech.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has announced a €50 billion investment to strengthen the European health union in her annual State of the Union speech.

Speaking in the European Parliament on Wednesday (15 September), von der Leyen proposed “a new health preparedness and resilience mission for the whole of the European Union” which will be backed up by a ‘Team Europe’ investment of €50 billion by 2027.

This is designed to ensure that “no virus will ever turn a local epidemic again into a global pandemic”.

“There is no better return on investment than that,” von der Leyen stated.

The president said that “massive funding” is needed to bring innovation, scientific capacity, private sector knowledge and competent national authorities together.

The new Health Emergency preparedness and Response Authority (HERA) was also a focus of her speech.

HERA is set to become a key actor in strengthening Europe’s ability to prevent, detect, and rapidly respond to cross-border health emergencies.

“This will be a huge asset to deal with future health threats earlier and better.”

The incubator proposal is expected to be unveiled on Thursday and will be fully operational by early 2022.

But this ambition failed to impress some MEPs, who pointed out that the European Parliament will be cut off from the negotiations on setting up the new agency.

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Additional 250 million vaccine doses to be donated

Praising the EU’s efforts in coping with the pandemic, President von der Leyen highlighted the success of the COVID digital certificates.

“I stood here, in front of you 12 months ago, I did not know when or even if we could have a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19. But today, against all critics, Europe is among the world leaders,” she said. 

In reference to the vaccination strategy, von der Leyen insisted that the EU “did it the right way, because we did it the European way, and I think it worked”.

But not all MEPs agreed with the sentiments.

For German liberal MEP Nicola Beer, “the pandemic has shown that Europe is not going under, but Europe has not done anything world-changing or groundbreaking.”

Meanwhile, for Green MEP Bas Eickhout, von der Leyen was too self-congratulatory on coronavirus vaccinations.

“Global vaccination, not just COVAX, is our next focus,” he said.

Currently, over 70% of the EU’s adult population is fully vaccinated, and over 700 billion vaccine doses were delivered to the bloc.

A similar amount was delivered to the rest of the world.

But while the majority of Europeans got their full vaccination, in low-income countries this figure reaches only 1%.

Acknowledging this point, the Commission President highlighted that the “scale of injustice and the level of urgency is obvious”.

“This is one of the great geopolitical issues in our time,” she said. 

As such, in addition to the 250 million doses of vaccine the EU has committed to share, the President announced a further 200 million doses will be donated by the middle of next year.

To speed up the vaccination rates outside of the bloc, Team Europe will also invest €1 billion euros to ramp up mRNA production capacity with Africa. 

At the moment, the EU has 1.8 billion additional COVID-19 vaccine doses secured.

But while von der Leyen said the EU should be confident, she warned against complacency, urging the bloc to continue with vaccination campaigns.

“This is enough for us and our neighbourhood when booster shots are needed. So let’s do everything possible so that this does not turn into a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” she concluded.

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The African Union on Tuesday (14 September) accused manufacturers of COVID-19 vaccines of denying African countries a fair chance to buy them, and urged manufacturing countries – in particular India – to lift export restrictions on vaccines and their components.

[Edited by Natasha Foote]

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