Weaponizing Cancer as a European Election Pledge

April 26, 2019
Peter O'Donnell
Peter O'Donnell

Peter O'Donnell is a freelance journalist who specializes in European health affairs and is based in Brussels, Belgium.

Applied Clinical Trials

Peter O'Donnell writes about Manfred Weber's announcement of what he called "his European Master Plan against Cancer" – with what he termed "a guarantee" for European citizens, taking political lobbying over health to a new level in Europe

On April 26, cancer entered the fray as Europe entered one of its periodic bouts of election fever. This time not just as an aspiration from patient groups and physicians and medical societies and researchers desperate for better prevention and care. This time it is being brandished as an election promise by one of the leading candidates for high office in the coming months. "The fight against cancer will be one of my key priorities,” he said.

Manfred Weber, a German MEP who is bidding to become the president of the European Commission in November, announced what he called "his European Master Plan against Cancer" – with what he termed "a guarantee" for European citizens. This takes political lobbying over health to a new level in Europe. It gets close to saying "Vote for me and I'll get you a cure for cancer" – a new twist on the familiar promises of electoral hopefuls around the world of more jobs, more money, less tax, less bureaucracy… But this pledge is very specific – and is likely to be closely scrutinised. All the more so, because at present Weber is the favorite to win the top job in the European Union's arcane system for choosing a successor to Jean-Claude Juncker.

The plan itself is not so remarkable, covering the well-trodden ground of exploiting "innovations in the fields of biomedicine, bioinformatics, big data and artificial intelligence", with "the patient at the centre of our actions". It ticks the boxes on prevention and early detection strategies and investments in infrastructure. And it sets a goal of cure rates of "at least 90% by 2030". Difficult to check delivery from someone standing for a five-year term of office in 2019. 

He has also judged his pitch well to align with the currently accelerating concerns over a two-speed Europe in which patients in the former communist countries that joined the EU only in this century lag far behind the richer, older member states in the west. "Depending on the type of cancer a patient in the east (of Europe) will have 30% less chance to heal, a dramatic and unacceptable reality. Similarly, there are fewer clinical trials currently taking place in the East compared to the West, which can make advancements more difficult to achieve." In the 13 newer member states there are currently just under 5,000 clinical trials taking place, while in the 15 longstanding members there are over 26,000, he says.

But it will be welcomed by many who have been lobbying for Europe to take a more assertive stance in health policy in general, and in cancer research in particular. They will appreciate the profile that Weber's campaign will bring with his statements that the statistics on cancer "are shocking and we must us act.” They will see merit in his proposal for a European Digital Cancer Center to assist clinicians, basic researchers, health authorities, and patients’ organizations in accessing information from health records across Europe. And they will take heart from his flourishes of military imagery: "Europe must join forces and take up arms: the fight against cancer has to be an absolute priority of the next European Commission."

 Weber has enlisted support for his initiative from half-a-dozen prominent oncologists: "With a dedicated European approach, we will be able to cure 9 out 10 children with cancer in 10 years", commented  Prof. Dr. Angelika Eggert, director of paediatrics in the oncology and hematology department of the Charité Universitätsmedizin Berlin. And Thierry Philip, president of the Organization of European Cancer Institutes, said: "I found in Manfred Weber’s proposal the vision, the impact, the vitalization I was looking for and as the president of an organization of 100 cancer institutes I will strongly support it."

There is, however, a potential weakness in Weber's promise. The cancer pledge is just one of a dozen similar "guarantees" that he has issued. The others include protection of EU borders and a stop to illegal migration, the creation of a European FBI to fight terrorism and organized crime, putting an end to talks with Turkey about its accession to the EU, new approaches to rule of law, the development of smart homes for seniors, five million new jobs for our youth, cutting back outdated EU regulations, a fund financed by "internet giants" to help workers who lose their jobs to automation, home-building loans for young families, a global ban on child labor, and "an ambitious fight on climate change and global ban on single-use plastic".  The inescapable feeling is that it is election time, and candidates will say anything to get elected – including promising the moon to publics more easily won over by rhetoric than reason.

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