German minister sees COVID-19 restrictions through winter

Welcome, health colleagues, to the second update of the week from the European Alliance for Personalised Medicine (EAPM). With lockdown running rife across the continent, nay, the world, lights at the end of the tunnel have nevertheless appeared this week, with the news that two EU companies have seemingly produced vaccines for COVID-19 that are, it is said, 90% and 92% effective. EAPM Executive Director Denis Horgan takes us through the news.

Grasping the chance

Getting it right the next time round may no longer be an option for Europe. For health care, as for other major challenges of our time, there may not be a “next time”. In just the same way that the world is hovering on the brink with COVID-19 and the Trump-Biden transition, with the stakes so high, getting it wrong this time round may spell disaster. Europe’s previous hesitancy over health-care reforms risks leading to an irremediable meltdown of health systems – and of Europeans’ health.

Whether Europe – and the world – can deliver courageous collective action is an open question to be answered. The underlying question is the same, whether for arresting global warming, or bringing greater equality to an increasingly divided society, or extending peace and security into Europe’s neighbourhood, or addressing the challenges of mass-migration, or countering organized crime or terrorism, or embracing new approaches to health.

Do we, as a society, have the capacity to tackle such big questions adequately? Do frameworks exist to cope with the inevitable scale and complexity of such issues? Are they apt to cope with the speed of evolution that sees the EU currently under the presidency of a country that was part of the Soviet bloc a generation ago – and a country that is leading Europe on digital technology, as well. The demonstrations of the capacity for change are prevalent in many aspects of our lives today: civil rights have moved forward in many ways and places. 

Certainly, in terms of health care, Europe is currently displaying the boldness that would enable it to grasp success from what looks like getting closer and closer to the jaws of failure. A clock is ticking as Europe tackles multiple challenges of the ever-rising demands for care, ever more fragile resources, and the manifest inequalities in opportunity, access and outcome across Europe’s countries, regions and social groups. The EU has the tools for a possible framework for collective decision-making and action in health care.  One of these issues is on cancer as an update below will highlight….

EU Horizon Cancer Mission

Speaking to a session of the Parliament’s cancer committee, Walter Ricciardi and Elisabete Weiderpass presented the 13 recommendations for action under the Horizon Europe’s Cancer Mission. Every year, 3.5 million people in the EU are diagnosed with cancer, and 1.3 million die from it. Over 40% of cancer cases are preventable. Without reversing current trends, it could become the leading cause of death in the EU. Europe’s beating cancer plan aims to reduce the cancer burden for patients, their families and health systems. It will address cancer related inequalities between and within member states with actions to support, coordinate and complement member states’ efforts. 

As mentioned, the Cancer Mission Board has recommended a number of recommendations that includes the following, which EAPM have worked  over the last years to support through our multi stakeholders collaboration with the institutions to put this on the political agenda.

  • Fourth Recommendation: Optimise existing screening programmes and develop novel approaches for screening and early detection

  • Fifth Recommendation: Advance and implement personalised medicine approaches for all cancer patients in Europe

  • Sixth Recommendation: Develop an EU-wide research programme on early diagnostic and minimally invasive treatment technologies

  • Eight Recommendation: Create a European Cancer Patient Digital Centre where cancer patients and survivors can deposit and share their data for personalised care

  • Tenth Recommendation: Set up a network of Comprehensive Cancer Infrastructures within and across all EU member states to increase quality of research and care

On a related note, the EAPM will be holding a lung cancer screening event on 10 December, entitled ‘Lung Cancer & Early Diagnosis: The Evidence Exists for Lung Screening Guidelines in the EU’ – registration will open next week!

Rare diseases – Coronavirus wreaks havoc

Some 84% of patients living with rare diseases have experienced disruptions in their regular care in Europe during the course of the pandemic, according to EURORDIS. Disruptions included rescheduled surgeries, postponed chemotherapies, and canceled diagnostic tests. And the pandemic has also taken a toll on patients’ mental health, with six in 10 having their psychiatric visits interrupted.

Commission and Parliament together and at loggerheads

On Thursday (12 November), the European Parliament and Commission began friendly but then quickly began levelling accusations. Concerning the EU’s health programme EU4Health, Parliament and Commission have successfully encouraged the Council to allocate more money for.

This increase is a triumph for all of us,” Cristian Silviu Bușoi, the file’s rapporteur from the European People’s Party, said in his opening statements.This was quickly echoed by Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides, who said the budget increase was proof that, “together, the European Parliament and Commission, we have shown we have been listening” to citizens’ desire for “more EU in public health.” 

Then, concerning vaccines, Kyriakides began by saying everything the Commission has done when securing vaccines has been in “full compliance” with EU law and “will stand any future review or audit”.

Health Committee Chairman Pascal Canfin repeated demands made in his October letter, arguing that the Commission should make certain information – indemnity clauses, prices, production locations – available. “There is no reason for you to not be able to publish” this information, Canfin said. “Your legal arguments don’t hold water. We want this to be a successful vaccine. For it to be successful, it has to be accepted; and for it to be accepted, there needs to be trust; and if there’s to be trust, there has to be transparency.”

Member states call for EU co-ordination to stay in hands of member countries

Three EU countries have called for a more integrated crisis management response that stays in the hands of the Council of the European Union. 

The Netherlands, Sweden and Romania have indicated that the coronavirus pandemic presents a “window of opportunity” for EU countries to integrate their crisis responses, and the three countries argue that, as “democratically elected governments,” they are “responsible and accountable towards their voters and parliaments in ensuring the safety and security of their citizens”.

Therefore, the member states bear the primary responsibility for crisis management,” the countries wrote in their paper which, published on 9 November, came two days before the Commission announced its suggestions for a European Health Union. 

The three countries do back a more coordinated approach, with a permanent crisis management system housed in the Council. 

BioNTech/Pfizer and Commission reach vaccine deal

The European Commission has approved a fourth contract with pharmaceutical companies BioNTech and Pfizer, which provides for the initial purchase of 200 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine on behalf of all EU member states, plus an option to request up to a further 100 million doses, to be supplied once a vaccine has proven to be safe and effective against COVID-19. Member states can decide to donate the vaccine to lower and middle-income countries or to redirect it to other European countries. 

The contract with the BioNTech-Pfizer alliance builds upon the broad portfolio of vaccines to be produced in Europe, including the already signed a contracts with AstraZeneca, Sanofi-GSK and Janssen Pharmaceutica NV, and the concluded successful exploratory talks with CureVac and Moderna. This diversified vaccines portfolio will ensure Europe is well prepared for vaccination, once the vaccines have been proven to be safe and effective. 

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said: “In the wake of Monday’s (9 November) promising announcement by BioNTech and Pfizer on the prospects for their vaccine, I’m very happy to announce today’s agreement with the European company BioNTech and Pfizer to purchase 300 million doses of the vaccine. 

“With this fourth contract we are now consolidating an extremely solid vaccine candidate portfolio, most of them in advanced trials phase. Once authorized, they will be quickly deployed and bring us closer to a sustainable solution of the pandemic.”

And that is everything from EAPM for this week – do have an enjoyable and safe weekend, stay well, and see you soon.

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