BRUSSELS, 7 May (APM) - Growing calls for the European Union to expand its engagement in health policy in the wake of the coronavirus crisis were strengthened on Thursday by the European Parliament’s socialist group.
Top figures in the group - the second-largest in the parliament - wrote to the presidents of the European Commission and the European Council seeking "the urgent creation of a European Health Union," with "a stronger, faster joint procurement mechanism to respond to epidemics, but also for expensive new treatments, rare diseases or new antibiotics".
The news comes amid similar arguments from numerous politicians and pressure groups over recent weeks.
Countering systemic stress
The shock of the pandemic is driving a new degree of radical thinking in EU policy circles that questions the taboo of member state autonomy in most health matters - and at the same time raises the prospect of new approaches to pharmaceutical research, production and access.
The pandemic has shown, says the MEPs’ letter, that healthcare systems across member states can be easily overwhelmed, and Europe needs stronger tools to protect public health, as well as better funded and accessible healthcare systems.
Procurement of medical goods is one of the focuses of the letter, which is signed by the group president, Iratxe García Pérez, as well as by vice-president Heléne Fritzon and health committee coordinator Jytte Guteland.
The EU’s joint procurement mechanism "is an excellent tool" which avoids competition between member states and enables equal access to the medicines and devices across Europe, it says, but "the process was too slow".
There is also a need for "stronger EU health agencies," with expanded resources and remits for the European Centre for Disease Control and the European Medicines Agency, and for "new complementary EU health agencies".
"Alongside this we will have proposals to improve European health research and the resilience and security of the European health industry."
The letter also urges the creation of a European Health Response Mechanism that would "formalise some of the ad-hoc tools and guidelines that have been set up during the current crisis, such as the expert advisory panel and guidelines on cross border
treatment of patients".
Wide access is also central to the socialists' recommendations: "Every person, without
discrimination, has the right to access modern and comprehensive healthcare."
The letter promises the publication of "detailed proposals next week, which we hope can serve as a basis to begin common work to create a European Health Union".
Echoes across the EU
Even before the coronavirus outbreak, EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides was telling the EP "I do see better coordination necessary" in health, and more recently she has gone further.
"We need more Europe in the area of public health. Fragmentation makes us more vulnerable. There is now a realisation that nobody can deal with this public health crisis alone," she said in April.
Both German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron have urged greater integration in Europe, going so far as to ponder "how an efficient European health system could be established in all member states".
MEPs from across the political spectrum told APM in recent interviews of their conviction that Europe should work more closely on health matters.
Denis Horgan, the director of the personalised medicines lobby, EAPM, told APM that "more EU and increased coordination" is necessary in everything from health technology assessment and data collection to incentives for vaccine development and investment in innovation.
And the powerful lobby for rare diseases, Eurordis, is also planning to underline the theme of collaboration in research, competitiveness and addressing unmet need at its annual conference on 14-15 May.
Even the pharmaceutical industry has repeatedly proclaimed its readiness to "stand in solidarity and unity with citizens, governments, health systems and key partners in research to tackle the coronavirus" in the face of a pandemic that transcends borders - and it has repeatedly lamented the lack of EU cohesion on specific issues such as HTA or on broader policies such as research incentives.
Because the interest in greater EU powers over health frequently overlaps with calls for greater control over medicines, the prospects for the private sector are not unambiguously positive.
Many of the health campaigning organisations have been emphasising the need for greater public interest to predominate over private sector profits in any rejig of the EU’s approach to medicines policy.
The pressures for change and greater coordination are growing at international level too, and are likely to influence the context for the pharmaceutical industry in Europe and beyond.
Significantly, the directors-general of the World Health Organisation and the World Trade Organisation issued a joint call in late April for equitable access to technologies developed to combat Covid-19, "including open access to clinical test results and sharing of relevant intellectual property and increasing manufacturing capacity".