Health brief: What the EU can learn from the US
In the very first stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the EU was criticised for its management of the health crisis, particularly when it comes to the delays in the production and supply of vaccines.
On the other hand, the US seemed to have started with a bang, supplying nearly 200 million doses, compared to 117 million for India and 140 million for the EU, according to data from Airfinity, a site that compiles global public health figures.
“Earlier vaccine doses save lives,” noted Chad Bown, a US economist at the Peterson Institute, who participated in the European Parliament’s special committee on COVID-19 meeting this week (6 February).
One of the topics of the meeting was, indeed, to understand the ‘fundamental lessons’ – as Brown put it at a certain point – the EU could learn from America’s approach to COVID in order to better manage future pandemics.
The economist reported that the US government provided grants for Operation Warp Speed (OWS) (a $10-billion public-private partnership to accelerate national vaccine production and facilitate distribution) “early enough” for pharmaceutical companies to set up the production quickly, start the contract with suppliers and establish their supply chains.
Bown also said the US government has provided financial incentives, including to Moderna Laboratory, for the first doses delivered: an additional $3 per dose to meet the emergency use authorization deadline on 31 January 2021.
“This provided an incentive for companies to deliver more quickly and potentially build additional production capacity,” Bown said.
In the face of much criticism of the EU’s handling of the pandemic and its pharmaceutical industrial sovereignty, Sibilia Quilici of Vaccines Europe was keen to point out the EU’s “leading” role when it comes to vaccine production.
“We have been able to access certain regulatory flexibilities to ensure the evolution, the rapid development of the vaccine, its rapid production,” she said.
“All of this has required a great deal of flexibility, and I think that flexibility should be maintained even after the crisis.”
After Quilici pointed out that the EU provided doses not only to the European population but also to other countries, Bown highlighted that this was one of the lessons the US could learn from the EU’s strategy.
“What Europe has done well, and what the US can learn from Europe, is to share doses once they are produced,” he said in reference to the Covax mechanism, created in 2020, which redistributes anti-COVID doses for fair and equitable access to the vaccine.
As of February 2022, the EU’s participation in Covax amounted to €3 billion.
In January 2022, the World Health Organisation announced that the mechanism had distributed 1 billion doses.
Beyond the pandemic
The discussion on how the administrations of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden managed the pandemic soon shifted towards what makes the US a better place for investments in the healthcare sector.
“We are lagging behind the United States. The American political conditions are more in the direction of supporting innovation and maintaining a high innovation capacity for the industry,” Matthias Bauer of the European Centre for International Political Economy (ECIPE) said during the online hearing.
According to him, there is a need for more flexibility in EU regulations to make them more attractive to the sector. In particular, he advocated a tax rebate or the abolition of corporate tax for pharmaceutical companies.
“The EU is in a good position to maintain a high level of production and innovation, but it can do more if member states remove certain regulations, for example in the area of pricing policy,” he continued.
Not everyone in the room shared the same opinion though: For Massimo Florio, a professor of public economics at Milan University, establishing tax benefits for pharmaceutical companies would not reduce the gap in investment in the EU health sector.
Comparing the huge discrepancy in the budget of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and its US counterpart, the Food and Drug Administration – respectively around €100 million and $10 billion – he emphasised that the EU must have a long-term strategy to strengthen the sovereignty of Europe’s pharmaceutical industry.
One of the main criticisms levelled at the EU is the lack of funding for research and development.
According to a recent study conducted for the White House, there are currently 26 families of viruses that could lead to a new pandemic. The United States plans to allocate about $24 million to support research.
“In Europe, we are not ready to juggle with this level of budget. It is not surprising that in the market, American companies are dictating the rules of the game,” complained Florio.
The debate is expected to heat up in just over a month, when the Commission finally unveils the revision of the EU’s pharmaceutical rules.
In particular, parallels with the positive ecosystem for healthcare investments in the US will be a key point of reference in the reaction to the proposed rules.
Alcohol labelling. The Irish government is “grateful and somewhat surprised” that the European Commission did not reject their draft regulation for health warning labels on alcohol, despite renewed attempts by other member states to block the proposal.
‘Forever chemicals’ ban. The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) published the much-awaited proposal aimed at restricting 10,000 synthetic substances hazardous to human health, with the evaluation process set to start in March.
Earthquakes in Turkey and Syria. On Tuesday (7 February), the Commission announced that after the activation of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism by Turkey, 19 EU countries, together with Albania and Montenegro, have offered teams in coordination with the EU’s Emergency Response Coordination Centre and the Turkish authorities in the wake of earthquakes.
25 search and rescue teams are heading to the hardest hit areas in Türkiye to help the first responders on the ground, 11 of these teams have already arrived. In addition, two medical teams have been sent via the EU Civil Protection Mechanism to provide emergency healthcare to people affected. In total, 1,185 rescuers and 79 search dogs have been offered by the European countries.
In Syria, the EU is in contact with its humanitarian partners on the ground and is funding humanitarian organisations that are carrying out search and rescue operations, while also providing water and sanitation support, and distributing blankets and hygiene items in affected areas. They are also assessing the level of damage and needs inside Syria in the aftermath of yesterday’s earthquake to adapt their response.
The EU is considering all viable options to deploy additional resources inside Syria in support of the affected populations.
Clinical trials. On Friday (3 February), the European Medicines Agency, the Heads of Medicines Agencies (HMA), and the European Commission (EC) launched a public consultation on the establishment of a multi-stakeholder platform to improve clinical trials in the EU. The multi-stakeholder platform is a deliverable of the joint initiative Accelerating Clinical Trials in the EU (ACT EU). Stakeholders are invited to send their comments on the ACT EU multi-stakeholder platform concept paper, advise on the key priorities for discussion and express their interest to join the platform via an online form until 3 March 2023.
Breast cancer. On Friday (3 February) the World Health Organization (WHO) released a new Global Breast Cancer Initiative Framework, providing a roadmap to attain the target of saving 2.5 million lives from breast cancer by 2040. The new Framework recommends that countries implement the three pillars of health promotion for early detection, timely diagnosis and comprehensive management of breast cancer to reach the targets.
More investment in health. On Tuesday (7 February) The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities published a position paper on Priorities for health research in Horizon Europe’s pillar 2. In response to the European Commission consultation on the Horizon Europe programme, The Guild highlighted that the last three years have demonstrated the critical need for investing in health research, to ensure that citizens across Europe have access to innovative and high-quality healthcare. The importance of ensuring appropriate data sharing, multinational clinical trials, and access to digital solutions was highlighted as a critical way to enhance the effectiveness and affordability of healthcare in Europe. The paper stressed the importance of research on healthy ageing, diseases and pandemics as well as increasing resilience against threats of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.
Money for allergic rhinitis. Dianosic, a Strasbourg-based deep-tech company specialising in the development of innovative solutions for the treatment of Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) conditions, on Monday (6 February) announced that it has closed a €4.7 million funding round. This funding will enable Dianosic to finance its preclinical in vivo study and launch the phase I clinical trial of its ARIS-R (Active Resorbable Intranasal Scaffold – Rhinitis) solution for the treatment of chronic allergic rhinitis.
EURORDIS awards. On Friday (3 February) an EU-based non-profit alliance of over 1000 rare disease patient organisations EURORDIS announced that it has awarded the 2023 EURORDIS Company Award for Innovation to global biopharmaceutical company PTC Therapeutics, due to PTC’s commitment to the AADC deficiency, Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, SMA, Friedrich Ataxia, ALS, and Huntington’s Disease communities.
COVID variants in China. No new COVID-19 variants have emerged in China during the recent surge in infections since the country ended its zero-COVID policy, based on cases seen in Beijing, according to a study published in the scientific journal the Lancet on Wednesday (3 February). Genome analysis of 413 new COVID-19 infections in Beijing spanning the time period when China lifted its most strict pandemic control policies suggests all were caused by existing strains. Over 90% of local infections in Beijing between November 14 and December 20, 2022, involved Omicron sub-variants BA.5.2 or BF.7. Imported cases during the same period mostly involved different variants to those dominant in Beijing. The authors say the findings can be considered a snapshot of the current state of the pandemic in China.
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9 February – European Parliament’s environment and health committee
9 February – Accelerate pediatric oncology annual conference
9-10 February – Special European Council
13-16 February – European Parliament’s plenary
13 February – Council’s working party on Pharmaceuticals and Medical devices
14 February – Precarious work and mental health, conference at the European Economic Social Committee (EESC)
15 February – AMR: New incentives – a call for action