When COVID-19 reached Europe, it became clear that the EU was not well prepared for such a health crisis. As a result of uncoordinated actions and lack of solidarity among Member States, many EU citizens are losing faith in the European project.
We must turn the tide and make COVID-19 a turning point. If we want to convince citizens about the importance of the EU, we must prioritise those issues that European citizens really care about, such as their health and wellbeing.
This crisis has shown that European cooperation is needed to face cross-border challenges, but there is much more to public health than that. We have long been worried about the effects of pollution on our health and the increasing commercialisation of healthcare in Europe.
We have a great deal of work ahead of us. An increasing amount of European legislation has an impact on our health; much of it not always positive. A typical example would be the difficulties in delivering strict legislation on toxic substances such as pesticides and endocrine disruptors.
A healthy society should not just be a means to a healthy economy, but rather it should be an objective in itself. We believe that there are four key EU health challenges that need to be addressed: crisis preparedness, ‘Health in all policies’, access to affordable medicines and health sovereignty.
Firstly, European disaster preparedness needs to be improved, particularly our capacity to anticipate crises, gather information, and be ready to act when the time comes.
We must reinforce the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), which has seen its staff considerably reduced in recent years. The ECDC needs greater resources to better support Member States in implementing preventive measures, defining common disaster response plans and organising regular stress tests to evaluate the EU’s capacity to handle health crises.
We should also create databases that can aggregate information on stocks of medicines, available intensive care beds and medical devices to provide a clear overview of the situation in the EU. Being ready to act also means having a robust network of EU health workers specifically trained to face different types of crises, and available on short notice.
“We believe that there are four key EU health challenges that need to be addressed: crisis preparedness, ‘Health in all policies’, access to affordable medicines and health sovereignty”
Such a European Health Corps would be present in all EU hospitals, working as part of the medical staff while also liaising with institutional experts’ groups handling the crisis.
Secondly, we need a truly “health in all policies” approach, which takes into account the consequences of public policy on health systems, health determinants, inequalities and well-being.
We want a food and agricultural policy that ensures healthy food, a trade policy that protects our health standards and an employment policy that protects the health of workers. Prevention should be key, as this benefits both citizens and national health budgets.
We need to drastically reduce air, water and soil pollution, and to ban toxic pesticides and other harmful substances. When it comes to tobacco consumption, alcohol abuse and healthy diets, policymakers should not only focus on individual behaviour but also take structural measures.
Thirdly, the COVID-19 crisis has raised many questions about the availability and affordability of future vaccines and treatments. Our current pharmaceutical policies are driven by the interests of manufacturers rather than public health concerns.
Treatments and vaccines should be available and affordable for all, not just for COVID-19 sufferers, a demand which will necessitate an increase in public funding and a change in the R&D model for pharmaceuticals, based on open science, transparency of R&D costs and clinical trials, as well as compulsory and non-exclusive licensing of patents.
“We must not let this opportunity pass us by; it is time to build a more resilient European health model that will be able to face new types of challenges ahead”
The EU should collaborate with the WHO and other Global Health Initiatives and take a lead in international initiatives on access to, and affordability of, medicines.
Fourthly, the health security of Europeans depends on the sovereignty we hold over key parts of the medical process. The COVID-19 crisis exposed the flaws in our supply system when the hard reality of medicines shortages hit the EU.
Today, 80 percent of active medical ingredients are produced outside Europe, compared with 20 percent only 30 years ago. While we consider that the EU should introduce rules requiring minimum stocks and at least partial relocation of the pharmaceutical industry's production lines, this is just a starting point.
This crisis calls for an overhaul of our medical supply model. Over the years, the EU has relied too much on the pharmaceutical industry and needs to take back responsibility, creating public and independent laboratories, R&D centres and its own supply chains for at least part of the production of medical devices.
A European public laboratory would then be responsible for producing a minimum amount of active medical substances, making us less reliant on industry in future.
By focusing on these four areas, we hope health will be placed prominently on the European agenda. The European Commission is currently working on its pharmaceutical strategy.
We must not let this opportunity pass us by; it is time to build a more resilient European health model, fit and able to face new types of challenges ahead.