HERA to prepare Europe for future health emergencies

Article
Giorgia Termini

During her speech on the State of the Union, on September 16, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced the European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA). The authority was conceived in response to the EU’s need to activate a health security body, to assure the timely availability and supply of crisis relevant medical countermeasures. The Covid-19 Pandemic has undeniably taught Europe something – that is the importance of preparedness, collaboration and fast implementation of measures. Delays, inefficiencies and strategic dependencies, which are just some of the vulnerabilities that emerged within the EU during the health crisis, could have been avoided had the Union prioritised crisis preparedness.

To date, there is a general consensus on the idea that Covid-19 will not be the world’s last public health emergency. As such, to try to avoid the past repeating itself, Europe needs to work on being prepared to anticipate and address, not only pandemics but also man-made threats such as bioterrorism. However, this has not always been the case. Only in June 2020 did the Commission present a communication stressing the importance for the EU to include in its services an authority that would allow for acting and reacting promptly during a health crisis. An instrument that would enable the EU to effectively respond to cross-border health threats, assuring the development, production, procurement and equal distribution of appropriate countermeasures.

According to the Commission’s Communication, the above-mentioned vulnerabilities may have arisen from: the difficulties for MSs to gather and analyse intelligence on crisis relevant medical countermeasures; the absence of operative public-private partnerships which could have accelerated the crisis response; the difficulties to resort to a swift production or to a sufficient production capacity of countermeasures; and the struggles to reach a coordinated response at Union and national level.

Only in November 2020, did the Commission put forward the proposal of HERA in conjunction with the proposal for a Regulation on serious cross-border threats to health, the proposal to extend the mandates of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and of the European Medicines Agency (EMA). HERA is seen as a complementary measure to the two already established agencies. However, unlike the latter, HERA is not conceived as an agency, but rather as a structure within the European Commission itself. Its scope of intervention will extend to both crisis situations and preparedness.

The HERA incubator had already been launched in February 2021 and the Commission has been closely following its development ever since. Set to be fully functioning by the beginning of 2022, it would be run by a board with representatives from each EU country and its work will be assessed annually until 2025 when there will be a complete review of its actions.

HERA will represent a valid resource for the EU whose institutions believe that investing in crisis preparedness would rapidly benefit MSs, especially if compared to the possible costs of facing a crisis. The reason the EU executive has directed 6 billion from its budget to be allocated to HERA over a 6 year period. Additional funding would come from other EU programmes and national plans dealing with health emergency measures.