Thursday, July 25, 2024

Make the EU a health powerhouse again, experts urge incoming leaders

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Fresh after the European elections, an expert panel dissected the significance of Sunday night’s results for the future of the EU’s health policy.

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It was an issue rarely mentioned on the campaign trail, despite voters naming it among their deepest concerns – the state of Europe’s healthcare.

With Europe ageing rapidly, national healthcare systems under stress and the EU’s health industry slipping behind global competitors, the incoming European Commission and Parliament now face the daunting challenge of helping national governments future-proof health services.

While health is a mainly national competence, the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated how Brussels can step up to the plate by investing in life-saving medicines and providing equal access to vaccines. The EU also has a role to play in reaping the potential benefits of AI and other breakthrough healthcare technologies.

Fresh after Sunday’s European elections, a panel of experts representing industry and civil society debated how the new configuration of the European Parliament and appointments to positions of power in the European Commission could steer the bloc’s role in tackling these mounting challenges.

EU voters have elected the most right-leaning parliament ever, with radical right-wing forces making considerable gains in major national battlegrounds including the EU’s founding members Belgium, France, Germany and Italy. But pro-European forces at the centre have clung onto a majority of seats, with hopes that the so-called grand coalition of mainstream parties will continue to work together to push through legislation.

Doru Frantescu, founder of EU Matrix, explained that key health resolutions passed during the previous mandate – such as on vaccine procurement and regulatory flexibility in times of crisis – would have been voted down under the new, rightward-leaning configuration of the parliament. The Greens’ disastrous result, losing around 30% of their seats, could also weaken the focus on planetary health and its impact on citizens’ wellbeing.

Restore the EU’s competitive edge

The panel urged future EU leaders to prevent health from slipping down the list of priorities as the hot topics of defence, climate and migration dominate the political debate.

“Shaping Europe’s health care for 2030 starts now, starts today,” Katrien De Vos, Managing Director at MSD Belgium and Luxembourg, said. “Over the last five years, we have seen the vulnerability of our healthcare systems across Europe. But we’ve also seen the power of leading-edge science to improve and save lives.”

With Europe now providing just one in five new global treatments, compared to over half 25 years ago, Nathalie Moll of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) called on the bloc to restore its competitive edge faced with global giants China and the US.

“I have this vision of Europe in 50 years’ time being a great museum that everybody comes to visit to see how things used to be, and that’s not what I want,” Moll told the audience.

“I want us to be like we were during Covid, the producers of innovation for the rest of the world and the open market, the exporters and the ones who take care not only of our citizens but of the rest of the world – and we can only do that if we have the innovation to start with.”

Over the past five-year mandate, the EU has made beating cancer a priority through investments in new technologies, research and innovation. It’s set a goal to fully vaccinate 90% of the target population of girls against Human papillomavirus (HPV) – which can lead to cancer – and increase the vaccination rate in boys by 2030.

Panellist Mike Morrissey of the European Cancer Organisation (ECO) called for a continued focus on cancer – the second biggest killer in the EU – in the next mandate.

“We’ve had the start of Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, and it’s clear that it’s starting to have an impact,” he explained.

“If citizens feel that they are taking care of important issues like cancer, which touches so many lives, then they (…) identify with the EU (and) can see the difference that the EU is making,” he explained.

“Beating cancer will take more than a couple of years. It’s an investment for the future. But if we see it through and continue the implementation of the beating cancer plan, we’re confident that we can make a real difference.”

Protect the next generation

The panel also said that investing in healthcare means investing in Europe’s next generation, with Andrea Gerosa of think tank Think Young calling on the institutions to put the specific needs of youth at the centre of future health strategies.

“There is clearly one trend that it’s growing (…) among youth, which is mental health. We see it across any kind of research we do. Even when we talk about topics that have nothing to do with health, somehow mental health comes up,” Gerosa explained.

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He also made the case for healthcare to be modernised for the next generation: “This is very much an on-demand generation. There is a lot of demand for health to be associated with technology (…) having access to health data, vaccination history (…) a patient-centric approach using technology is something I think young people will appreciate a lot.”

Europe also needs to show it stands with youth to prevent first-time voters from veering towards the extremes of the political spectrum, the panel said. Preliminary data from Germany suggests that one of the most popular parties among 16–24-year-olds was the hardline Alternative for Germany (AfD), tied with the centre-right CDU/CSU at around 17%.

“Go outside Brussels to see what the young people have to say,” Gerosa urged future leaders. “That could bring a breath of fresh air and positive energy to build on.”

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