Towards a European Health Union: What’s on the 2022 table

Eleonora Mazzoni

The health emergency has created an unprecedented burden on the European Member States, leading to the European institutions having to rapidly intervene to address the main bottlenecks and strengthen the European capacity to respond to common threats. Twenty months on from the outbreak of Covid-19 in Europe, the importance of a strong and cohesive EU, especially in relation to public health, is still a key issue to be addressed. For these reasons, the European Commission is committed to building a strong European Health Union, where all EU countries prepare and respond together to health crises, with available, affordable and innovative medical supplies, and countries work together to improve prevention, treatment and aftercare for diseases such as cancer. No one is safe, until everyone is safe.

Thus, it is all on the 2022 table – from building the European Health Union to fighting antimicrobial resistance. Although our eyes are still on the latest and highly transmissible Omicron variant, the French EU Presidency, in the first half of 2022 in the person of President Emmanuel Macron, announced its three main challenges in health when presenting its priorities. The first is to set up “a real health agenda that consists of deploying much faster and much stronger structures for producing vaccines and a primary health system”, the second is to reinforce the local production of medicines and medical supplies in the EU, in line with the vision of Europe’s strategic autonomy, and the last is to develop digital health.

These priorities are, of course, consistent with the key initiatives to build a European Health Union that includes the Pharmaceutical Strategy for Europe, crisis preparedness and response measures and the European Plan to Beat Cancer. The most awaited initiative is probably the current EU legislation on medicines which will be presented at the very end of 2022 according to the Commission’s working programme. Returning the production of pharmaceutical raw materials to Europe is one of the cornerstones of this strategy, as is the need to increase innovation in the areas of unmet medical needs such as neurodegenerative and rare diseases and paediatric cancer. The medium/long term objective is, instead, to overcome the fragmentation of the health ecosystem also from an industrial point of view. Another important step towards this objective was taken in December 2021, when the European Parliament endorsed the agreement with the EU Council on the Health Technology Assessment (HTA). This new European tool will strengthen cooperation among Member States allowing for setting up a permanent structured framework to facilitate the joint work on, and uptake of, the HTA. This will also contribute to a better access to safe, effective and high – quality health technologies.

A long-awaited legislative proposal for setting up a health data space is also expected to be adopted in 2022. With the health data space proposal, the EU executive will try to simplify the exchange of and access to health data for different use cases, including healthcare provisions, digital health services, and research. Indeed, while working on the industrial side, the EU also needs to increase capacity building, and the digital upskilling of employees working in the health sector, while also intervening to leverage the health data potential, which is still underdeveloped and underused. This is why one of the corollary initiatives of the pharmaceutical strategy is the European Health Data Space and Eu4health. Moreover, the European Commission proceeded with a proposal for a Regulation on Serious Cross-border Health Threats, in order to create a more robust mandate for coordination at EU-level, and, on 15 September 2021, the Parliament also voted on the committee report in plenary, thereby setting its negotiating mandate and opening the way for inter-institutional negotiations. Last but not least, since cancer is the second leading cause of mortality in EU countries (after cardiovascular diseases) accounting for 29% of all deaths among males and 23% among females across all EU Member States, improving prevention and care is vital. 40% of cancer cases in the EU could be prevented, but only 3% of health budgets are spent on health promotion and disease prevention. The plan is a political commitment to turn the tide against cancer and another stepping stone towards a strong European Health Union. It was adopted on 3 February 2021, and its main pillars are prevention, early diagnosis, treatment and follow-up care. With its policy objectives, supported by ten flagship initiatives and multiple supporting actions, the Cancer Plan will help MSs to strengthen the fight cancer. Early this year, Parliament will also adopt the final report from its special committee on beating cancer with recommendations on how to better support cancer research and prevention and strengthen European health systems.

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