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Pandemics: EU strengthens its alert and response system

The EU's ability to cope with serious cross-border health threats such as coronavirus, the 2011 E. Coli epidemic or the 2009 H1N1 flu will be strengthened by legislation voted on Wednesday. The text introduces an early warning system, facilitates joint buying of vaccines and will make it possible to declare an EU-wide emergency in the event of a crisis.

EU legislators draw on experience of crises such as the epidemics of Escherichia coli virus in 2011 and H1N1 flu in 2009, as well as difficulties in dealing with the volcanic ash cloud of 2010. Existing EU-wide arrangements will be strengthened to improve coordination and reduce response times.

Joint buying of medicines and vaccines

MEPs also introduce a scheme to enable EU member states to buy medicines jointly and thus more cheaply. It should also ensure fairer access to vaccines.

"This is without a doubt the greatest achievement under this decision," said the rapporteur, Gilles Pargneaux (S&D, FR). "Access to vaccines will be fairer because they will be available at fairer prices. This is welcome progress, particularly in the smaller member states which simply could not afford the exorbitant prices charged during the recent pandemics," he said. The agreement he negotiated with Council was adopted by 678 to 21 votes, with 4 abstentions.

During the 2009 (H1N1) flu epidemic member states competed with each other to procure vaccines that were available only in limited quantities.

EU-wide public health emergency

The text also introduces the possibility of declaring a European "public health emergency" to accelerate the authorisation of medicines needed to combat the crisis. Current legislation requires the EU to wait until the World Health Organization declares an international emergency on all continents.

As some recent epidemics were linked to viral strains of avian or porcine origin, the text aims to ensure that preparedness and response planning in the veterinary and human health sectors are interoperable.

Independence of experts

The text stresses that the system must work transparently. When consulted, experts should declare any interest, direct or indirect, which could be considered prejudicial to their independence.

Next steps

The decision will take effect on the day it is published in the EU Official Journal.

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