Solidarity within the EU, rather than separate national approaches, is needed when dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. This was the unanimous assessment of the participants in the Conference of Chairpersons of committees on health, research and digital affairs from national parliaments and the European Parliament, which was held on Monday, 7 September 2020. At this conference, which was the second interparliamentary conference to be held in the framework of the parliamentary dimension of Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the EU and took the form of a video conference on account of the pandemic, delegates also repeatedly emphasised the importance of another point, namely digitalisation of the health system.
Optimism regarding a vaccine
Optimism prevailed with regard to a vaccine. There was a very promising development in this direction, said Peter Liese, a member of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety in the European Parliament and health spokesman of the EEP group. The clinical trials in phases one and two, he said, were going very well. We were now awaiting the outcome of phase three, without which the EU – unlike Russia, for example – could not authorise the release of the vaccine. Dr Liese expressed confidence that large quantities of the vaccine could be produced in a short time once it was authorised. Sandra Gallina, Deputy Director-General for Health and Food Safety at the European Commission, said that talks with five pharmaceuticals companies had already been concluded and that the manufacturers were taking part in a procurement process. In one case, the European Commissioner for Health had already signed a procurement contract.
“Don’t lose sight” of flu jabs
Andrea Ammon, Director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), referred in her opening statement to rising infection rates in Europe while stressing that the geographical distribution of these figures was very uneven. This was partly due, she said, to the diverse testing capacities in the individual Member States. The virus, said Dr Ammon, still existed. The need to act quickly remained with regard to both contact tracing and test efficiency. The statistics, after all, were the basis for important political decisions. It was also important in her view to maintain contact with the public. Social distancing rules, the use of face coverings and staying at home as the preferred option were still essential. The ECDC Director emphasised that we must not lose sight of flu vaccination. Flu jabs, she said, were important because they would minimise the pressure on health systems in autumn and winter.
Interfaces for the coronavirus tracing app
In an intervention during the discussion, which was hosted by Erwin Rüddel (CDU), chair of the Bundestag Health Committee, Manuel Höferlin (FDP), chair of the Committee on the Digital Agenda, described the coronavirus tracing app developed in Germany as “important and helpful”. It had been activated on 17 million smartphones, he said. “That is good, but it could be even better”, Mr Höferlin said, adding that cross-border functionality had to be ensured. Creating an interface through which the app could be linked into a network across borders was not rocket science, he said; it simply had to be done. “Interoperability is vital if we are to increase the effectiveness and public acceptance of the app”, said Höferlin.
Coherent measures within Europe, based on science
If the disease is to be brought under control and mastered, the “fantastic potential of digitalisation must be harnessed”, said Manuel Pizarro, a substitute member of the European Parliament Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety and co-author, along with two other MEPs, of a paper on health policy in the light of the pandemic. “Our systems must be interoperable”, he said – a view echoed by others. With regard to the second wave, which he regards as inevitable, Dr Pizarro called for coherent measures within Europe, founded on a scientific basis.
An example illustrating the necessity and benefits of cooperation, he said, was the vaccine effort. “That is something we have done well” was Dr Pizarro’s diagnosis. This met with the agreement of Iason Fotilas, chair of the Social Affairs Committee in the Hellenic Parliament, who described it as good news that a vaccine, if authorised, would be available to all EU Member States and that no one would have a monopoly on it.
Criticism of privatisations in the health sector
Criticism of the European Commission was expressed by Thierry Warmoes, chair of the Health Committee in the Belgian Parliament. Between 2011 and 2018, he said, the Commission had issued 63 recommendations for the privatisation of particular parts of the health sector with a view to cutting public expenditure. The Member States, he said, had largely implemented these recommendations, which had led to a loss of competence over health policy in Europe. “The recommendations have adversely affected the Member States’ health systems”, was Mr Warmoes’ assessment.
Don’t forget the subsidiarity principle
Erwin Rüddel, leading the discussion, rounded off the first part of the conference by emphasising that he, too, considered it right and proper that Europe should work together to combat the pandemic. It should not be forgotten, however, he said, that there were great differences between the Member States’ health systems. “That is why I still consider national parliaments to be responsible for shaping their countries’ health systems”, the Bundestag Member said. The subsidiarity principle must be applied “to ensure that matters are regulated where people’s real needs can be best addressed”.
Networks for health research
In the view of Jean-Eric Paquet, Director-General for Research and Innovation at the European Commission, Europe had been better prepared for the pandemic in the realm of research than in other fields. By mid-March, some projects had already been implemented – based, for example, on experience in dealing with the Ebola virus – said Mr Paquet during the second part of the conference, hosted by Ernst Dieter Rossmann (SPD), chair of the Bundestag Committee on Education, Research and Technology Assessment.
At that time, said Mr Paquet, 50 groups of experts in Europe had already been working on the development of ways to deal with the pandemic. Clinical trials had been conducted at an early date, and various testing methods had been put on the market too. “We also managed to establish a platform through which researchers from all parts of Europe not only share their research findings with each other but have also released their collected data”, said the Director-General. Even more than in the past, however, it was crucial to succeed in bringing European researchers together and creating networks.
Communication must become the “hand tool of scientists”
These networks might, however, pose a problem, said Professor Christian Drosten, Director of the Virology Institute at the Charité hospital in Berlin. “We scientists suffer from the size of the networks”, he said, “which imposes a great administrative burden”. The quality of research was jeopardised when bodies tended to come to the fore which had professionalised the system of applying for research funding but which might attach “secondary priority” to the actual content of research activity. Another point which disturbed Professor Drosten with regard to research funding was the frequent sharper focus on scientific excellence than on the real needs of society.
Another very important aspect, in his view, was communication by scientists and the problem encapsulated in the term ‘fake news’. Professor Drosten called on scientists to stand up and be counted – not by “directly absorbing and trying to discuss” misinformation but by delivering true facts that could be set against misinformation and lead to its being corrected. “What the unequivocal orientation of research is”, however, was something that scientists themselves had to make visible. Such communication “must simply become the normal hand tool of scientists”, said Drosten, who shows the way with his own regular NDR podcast.
Drosten: scientists propose, politicians dispose
When addressed by Thierry Warmoes of the Belgian Parliament on the subject of researchers’ independence of government, the virologist, regarded as an influential adviser of the Federal Government, replied that “scientists only make proposals; it is up to politicians to take the final decisions”. With the media, Drosten continued, another factor came into play. The way they depicted who advised and who decided sometimes distorted the picture and created the impression that scientists had taken a policy decision. Accordingly, it was also the duty of politicians to make it clear who performed what role so that the general public understood where the boundary lay. If that was not done, it could happen that people unjustly targeted scientists for criticism which should be directed towards their elected representatives.
Andrea Ammon, Director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), agreed with Christian Drosten’s assessment. She submitted that researchers were not taught how to present their findings in ways that made them comprehensible to the general public. “These skills must be practised, and roles must be clearly assigned”, said the ECDC Director.
Rossmann: research funding – no passing the buck to the EU
In his concluding words, Research Committee chairperson Ernst Dieter Rossmann emphasised the need for an overall European strategy which was always both European and national in nature. The ‘Lisbon pledge’ of the year 2000, he said, did not mean “that the whole three per cent of GDP is to be delivered by the EU and its research department”. On the contrary, national budgets and the private sector had to contribute their fair share of research funding. He considered that there was a “more compelling need than ever before” to make that clear. (hau/7 September 2020)
Videos relating to the "Europe in the pandemic" video conference on 7 September 2020
Here you can get a brief insight into the topics discussed at the Conference of Chairpersons of committees on health, research and digital affairs from national parliaments and the European Parliament on "Europe in the pandemic" on 7 September 2020 in Berlin.
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