The EU must open its 'next pandemic' plans to public debate

Frankly Speaking

Sustainable Livelihoods

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt welcomes the creation of a new body to fashion the EU’s defences against future pandemics, but urges wider discussion of its authority and financial muscle.

Quietly, perhaps too quietly, the European Commission is working on a framework of defences against future pandemics. It’s a complex task that will be expensive and fraught with political tensions, but it is being tackled in a puzzlingly low profile manner.

The Commission hasn’t trumpeted its new responsibility very loudly although there’s much to be said for encouraging public attention. So far, the EU has opted for its habitual behind-the-scenes process of discreet working groups and confidential reports.

Unlike many areas Brussels deals with, pandemics are of more than passing interest to the general public. The Covid-19 death toll is now independently estimated at over 16 million people worldwide rather than the official figure of five million, and will surely rise higher before this pandemic is over. And there’s an uneasy awareness that still more deadly zoonotic viruses may await us in the years ahead.

Dealing with a pandemic of this virulence has clearly been beyond the capacities of so many national authorities

The EU has a major role to play in creating policy solutions to health hazards that claimed many lives and wreak economic havoc. Its new HERA agency – the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority – opens its doors early next year and is tasked with devising a workmanlike plan to avoid Covid-19’s errors and mis-steps.

EU member governments usually hem and haw over any proposed extension of the Commission’s powers, but not this time. Dealing with a pandemic of this virulence has clearly been beyond the capacities of so many national authorities that a centralised mechanism was widely accepted as a no-brainer.

HERA’s eventual powers and responsibilities are unclear; the EU’s institutions are still squabbling over them. The Commission is keeping it in-house and refusing to see it made an autonomous agency like those for medicines and disease prevention. MEPs complain bitterly that the European Parliament was largely by-passed during HERA’s creation and is denied oversight.

HERA’s financial resources are somewhat vague. It will have a yearly budget of a billion euros, and if necessary the Commission says it can always draw on the €24 billion emergency fund to combat Covid-19’s impact. Whether the money presently earmarked will be sufficient is hotly disputed.

The Covid-19 pandemic is meant to have taught the value of building better defences against future attacks. But have policymakers taken this lesson to heart? Developing new vaccines to protect against yet unknown and perhaps far more virulent zoonotic diseases would be both costly but also unacceptably risky for drug companies. Taxpayers would have to take most of the strain.

The Commission’s speedy launch of HERA is reassuring

Before Covid-19, the combined sales of the top five vaccine manufacturers accounted for a mere two to three per cent of the trillion dollar world market for drugs. There’s comparatively little profit in vaccines, so Big Pharma hasn’t been keen to invest in them.

Governments in Europe and elsewhere will therefore need to cough up a great deal of money if an ambitious vaccines R&D programme is to be adequately funded. They should remember the precedent of the 2003 SARS outbreak in Asia when a mystery virus not unlike Covid-19 rang alarm bells worldwide. The WHO lost no time in encouraging drug companies to join a multi-million dollar vaccine effort, but the crisis subsided almost as quickly as it began and so too did the research funding.

Despite initial confusion over vaccines and lockdowns, and the unwholesome spectacle of member states’ unilateral beggar-my-neighbour responses, Europe is emerging relatively well from the pandemic in public health terms. The Commission’s speedy launch of HERA is reassuring too. But because Covid-19 has had such a direct impact on people, there’s a strong case for debating its scope more publicly than has so far been the case.

Uncomfortable questions to be addressed include the degree to which EU member states will commit to common responses to future pandemics – foreswearing, for instance, panicky border closures and vaccine hoarding. Equally important is whether Europe should consider a global leadership role in the event of another global pandemic.

The second part of this article on 30 November will discuss global preparedness for future pandemics.

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