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Peter O'Donnell is a freelance journalist who specializes in European health affairs and is based in Brussels, Belgium.
With the coronavirus now spread across northern Italy, the EU is assembling its forces to slow the virus with an aid package worth $250 million.
As coronavirus spreads across northern Italy, the European Union is marshalling its forces to slow the spread of COVID19. On February 24th it announced an aid package worth $250 million (€232 million) to boost global prevention and containment. “As cases continue to rise, public health is the number one priority. Whether it be boosting preparedness in Europe, in China or elsewhere, the international community must work together. Europe is here to play a leading role,” said Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the EU’s Executive, the European Commission.
Half the money will support the World Health Organization in the bid to help countries with weaker health systems around the world. Her colleague Janez LenarÄiÄ, who is responsible for crisis management, said, “With more than 2,600 lives lost already, there is no option but to prepare at all levels. Our goal is to contain the outbreak at a global level.” The EU’s civil protection mechanism has been organizing the delivery of emergency medical supplies to China-including more than 30 tons of personal protective equipment donated by member countries. And $15 million has been allocated to the Institute Pasteur in Dakar, Senegal, to support rapid diagnosis measures and epidemiological surveillance.
But the EU is also focusing on its own member countries. According to Stella Kyriakides, the commissioner for health, “following the developments in Italy, the commission is stepping up its support to member states”. To respond to the “rapidly evolving situation”, she revealed that a joint expert mission of the EU’s European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the World Health Organization will this week to Italy to support the authorities there.
Already in January, the commission promised $11 million in support of research into improving clinical care of patients infected with the virus, in addition to ongoing projects that have reoriented their activities to address the outbreak, addressing research preparedness of clinical treatment sites and the use of harmonized research protocols across Europe. The EU-funded European global virus archive project has also provided 79 countries with more than 1,000 diagnostic kits. Now $100 million will be put into a partnership with the pharmaceutical industry in a search for a vaccine, with another $10 million for research on epidemiology, diagnostics, therapeutics and clinical management in containment and prevention.
Since the outbreak was reported in China, the EU has activated its own early warning and response system, and after an emergency meeting of health ministers from the member states, it is coordinating work with ECDC and the European Medicines Agency on risk assessments, case definition for diagnosis and reporting, and information on therapeutics and vaccines. It says there is, “a strong overall level of preparedness with countries having response measures in place to provide treatment for the cases in the EU and to mitigate any further transmission within and into the EU.”
The UK’s Bioindustry Association commented that it was, “inspiring to see how scientists around the world are working together to tackle the virus and the impressive speed in which the latest science is being shared globally.” But it also warned that some international agreements threaten to hinder such cooperation.
That argument was taken further this week by Thomas Cueni, the director general of the Geneva-based International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations, who claimed that bureaucracy imposed on researchers in academia and industry by the Nagoya Protocol poses serious risks to public health. “The speed with which the sequence of 2019-nCoV has been shared is a potent reminder of how we should avoid tying up the research community in red tape when we are in a race to find a new vaccine or treatment for a new virus or other pathogen,” he said in a statement.
In his view, this supplementary international agreement to the Convention on Biological Diversity, “could make it extraordinarily difficult to conduct disease surveillance or forge research collaborations around the world.” The Nagoya Protocol aims to give each country sovereignty over its biological resources-and countries signing up to it are starting to make sharing of pathogen samples subject to complex negotiations. But while protecting resources is a laudable aim, protecting the biodiversity of pathogens “seems a perversion”, he said.
Not for the first time, a global health challenge exposes not only willingness to work together, but also some of the strains that emerge as different approaches to life-science are highlighted by the attempt to cooperate.