Vytenis Andriukaitis is a man on a health mission. Rather than winding down as his five-year Commission term draws to a close, the heart-surgeon-turned-politician remains as dynamic and enthusiastic as ever.
It’s hard not to be impressed by his effervescence and energy as we sit in his Berlaymont office while he explains his dedication to promoting health in Europe and beyond.
Asked what he considers his greatest successes as Health and Food Safety Commissioner, Andriukaitis says that the Global Vaccination Summit on 12 September - the first of its kind - was an enormous achievement.
“From my point of view, this is a big success. Not only because of the global summit itself, but also for what we have achieved in having an EU vaccination strategy, getting approval at the Health Ministers Council (where EU health ministers adopted the Council Recommendation on Vaccine Preventable Diseases), having the Council Conclusions on vaccination, as well as presenting a Commission Communication on vaccination that describes in great detail all the issues relating to vaccination.”
Andriukaitis explains that the Communication covers innovations in vaccination, the potential to join forces in introducing effective vaccine programmes, as well as asking Member States - for the first time - to harmonise national vaccination calendars.
“We are all in a Common Single Market, and in the Schengen area we have no borders; there is free movement of people and you have many people working in different countries.”
“You need to address the issues that relate to those families going from one country to another, with their children, and the fact that while in one country it’s too early to vaccinate children, in another country it’s too late. All because vaccination schedules differ from country to country.”
“It is time to overcome this silo mentality at national level and we encourage Member States to do it on a voluntary basis. Of course, we are proposing something that is highly innovative; for example, we want to go in the direction of creating stockpiles of vaccines.”
“We are also encouraging Member States to cooperate in public procurement. We now have 18 countries that have signed an obligation to go in this direction.”
Explaining the Commission’s proposals on vaccination, Andriukaitis discusses the introduction of electronic vaccination cards for children.
"We need to demonstrate EU leadership and boost our political commitments towards eliminating vaccine-preventable diseases"
Noting that it is often difficult for parents to remember exactly which vaccinations their children have received and when, he says that such advanced e-tools will help monitor the vaccination situation across the EU.
He adds, however, that Council has asked to assess the proposal. He says with a smile, “they do not accept it immediately, but it is now on the agenda.”
During our conversation, which takes place the day before the Global Vaccination Summit in Brussels - organised jointly by the European Commission and the World Health Organization - Andriukaitis is clearly buoyed by the prospect of bringing the importance of vaccination to a global audience.
“It is a great opportunity to see passionate global ambassadors, especially from NGOs, the world of culture, singers and unvaccinated children who now argue against their parents’ decision not to vaccinate. I am very proud of this.”
“We need to demonstrate EU leadership and boost our political commitments towards eliminating vaccine-preventable diseases.”
“We can engage with political leaders and different actors to say yes, we can build a coalition promoting vaccination, and we will achieve this, I am sure.”
Turning to the challenge of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) - the ability of microorganisms to resist antimicrobial treatments, particularly antibiotics - Andriukaitis says that the Commission has adopted a fresh approach.
“With rare diseases, we have also introduced an interoperability system that offers the possibility of consulting patients in remote areas … I’m very proud of that”
“Before it was veterinary, agriculture, and human, but now we are also proposing to include the environment. Because we need to understand the situation from an environmental point of view.”
“Climate change, microbiome, changes in environment and the pollution of antibiotics around big cities, big hospitals, big farms, in drinking water; we need to understand it and see how we can address the environmental component of resistant bacteria.”
“To raise AMR so high on the agenda - up to United Nations level - was a big achievement. We started with Europe, then we encouraged the G7, then the G20, then the General Assembly [of the United Nations].”
“Now it would be good to move forward by proposing some common methodologies for measuring the use of antibiotics globally, because we can’t address issues at EU level on our own.”
Another highlight of his mandate, says Andriukaitis, was the creation of the European Reference Networks (ERNs).
ERNs are virtual networks of healthcare providers across Europe that aim to facilitate discussions on complex or rare diseases and conditions that require highly-specialised treatment and a critical mass of knowledge and resources.
“From the beginning, no one had the courage to say if it was possible or not. But we tried to encourage Member States, hospitals, universities and academia, and we launched the ERNs - 24 networks - that dedicate their eff orts towards solving 28 pathologies.”
“With rare diseases, we have also introduced an interoperability system that offers the possibility of consulting patients in remote areas. Diagnosis, treatment and consultation go directly to the patient’s home.”
"Now we have pilot projects on e-prescriptions, on patients’ records - these are all things that were done in three and a half years"
“It’s highly innovative and we now have more than 300 cases that were treated in this way. I’m very proud of that, it’s a fantastic legacy.”
“Now we have pilot projects on e-prescriptions, on patients’ records - these are all things that were done in three and a half years. This then opened doors to building ecosystems that join academia, industry, scientists, clinicians, hospitals, to develop new, personalised statements.”
“This provides a real base to use big data and the one million genomes that are there, and with artificial intelligence now we have a place where we can use it.”
Given that these initiatives are still ongoing, he says that this is something to pass on to his successor, Cypriot Stella Kyriakides.
Asked what advice he has for Kyriakides, Andriukaitis says that first and foremost, he wishes her a successful hearing at the European Parliament.
“I met Kyriakides today. We had an excellent conversation. We are, of course, ready to assist and we really want her to succeed and overcome this barrier in the European Parliament.”
“I will, of course help her with any questions she may have, but first, let’s get her through the hearing.”
Asked what he expects from the upcoming European Health Forum Gastein - Europe’s biggest health policy event - Andriukaitis says, “I would be more than happy to see the Gastein Forum become much more influential than Davos.”
"I would be more than happy to see the Gastein Forum become much more influential than Davos"
“We need to do more, we need to send to all operators and all those multinational leaders gathering in Davos the message: don’t go about business as usual; please use business as health - healthier food, a healthy environment, the health of people - that is a question about sustainability, climate change and sustainable development goals.”
“Gastein can send the world these messages; I want to see Gastein in a much stronger position compared to Davos.”
Looking to the future, Andriukaitis is unequivocal in his message of what needs to be done to promote a healthier EU: “Promotion of health, protection of health, prevention of health issues, understanding the importance of participating in those issues and knowing that prevention is better than cure.”
“These are not empty words; Europe should do much more on prevention on a pan-European level. It is not only Member States’ responsibility - it is a big mistake to explain the Lisbon Treaty in this way.”
“The European Union has its own responsibility for implementing a ‘health in all policies’ approaches, preventing disease, protecting and promoting healthy living standards, healthy environments and healthy food.”