Vaccines, how the EU Commission is reorganising to manage the health crisis

Camilla Palla

Few vaccines, poorly distributed and at prices that are too high for the Member States. In the meantime, the virus continues to spread and European countries are reacting differently in their choice of measures to combat what now looks like a third wave. This is despite, last autumn, the Member States reaching a political agreement on an unprecedented scale, allowing the European Commission to act as the de facto negotiator for contracts with major pharmaceutical companies for the purchase of vaccines.

The situation is complicated by the distribution of competences in the EU in the healthcare sphere. As is well known, the management of public health is essentially a matter for national policies, especially when it comes to choices on the management of health systems. The EU can, in fact, propose legislation, coordinate and facilitate the exchange of good practices between states and provide financial support. In addition, it can adopt acts on health matters under Articles 114 (approximation of national laws), 153 (social policy) and 168 (protection of public health) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).

In response to the urgent need for greater coordination, the Commission presented a series of proposals for centralising and making the management of health in the EU more consistent in its Communication “Building a European Health Union” issued last November.

The Communication followed initiatives already taken last summer, when the health ministers of the Member States reached a political agreement allowing the Commission to act as a de facto negotiator in the purchase of vaccines from pharmaceutical companies. The reorganisation and reinforcement of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety led by Director-General Sandra Gallina should be read in this sense. Appointed by Ursula Von der Leyen, Gallina is, to all intents and purposes, the reference figure for vaccine negotiations. She also coordinates a special steering committee that represents a real negotiating team made up of a small number of experts from the Member States.

Other key initiatives are the creation of a specific Public Health Directorate under the leadership of John Ryan and the launch of Hera, the European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority. The mission of the new authority will be to enable the EU and its Member States to rapidly deploy the most advanced measures in the event of a health emergency, covering the entire value chain from development to distribution and use.

In the last few months, since the launch of the European strategy for vaccination against Covid-19 on 27 December, the task of the individual states should have been to prepare and implement vaccination plans, solutions to counter the spread of the virus and, in addition, to allow their citizens a return to normality.

In order to facilitate this process, the Commission announced at the end of February a new legislative proposal for the introduction of the Digital Green Pass, a certificate attesting to successful vaccination and allowing citizens in possession of it to move freely within the Union’s borders. The initiative had already been proposed before the end of last year and postponed for further evaluation. The risk of discrimination and lack of homogeneity was considered – and in fact remains – very high. Hence, the pass will have to be accompanied by a test result proving the subject’s immunity.

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