While European leaders are trying to protect citizens and the economy from the impact of COVID-19, the pandemic is already reshaping the EU health policy agenda. At Edelman, we believe that it is imperative for organizations active in this policy space to reset and adjust their priorities, as well as to refine their public affairs and communication strategies. Therefore, we have outlined in the paragraphs below some of the challenges and opportunities that organizations need to navigate in Brussels and beyond, in the short to medium term:
- A new health policy timetable
- An increased focus on medicines shortages and on the pharmaceutical supply chain
- The accelerating digitalization of healthcare
- A stronger role for the European Commission in coordinating Member States’ initiatives in healthcare
- Deeper public-private partnerships to boost research efforts
A new health policy timetable
COVID-19 is having a huge impact on the political, legislative and regulatory timetables and health-related files are no exception. For example, the long-awaited roadmap on the Pharmaceutical Strategy, that the European Commission was expected to publish on 11 March, has not been released yet and its content is likely to be adapted by taking into consideration the EU healthcare systems’ reactions to the current crisis.
This means that organizations have additional time in order to get their messages through and inform the drafting of the roadmap, in particular in relation to initiatives concerning shortages and research funding.
An increased focus on medicines shortages and on the pharmaceutical supply chain
The issue of medicines shortages was already high on the EU’s policy agenda a few months ago. The COVID-19 outbreak and its disruption of global supply chains put the spotlight on Europe’s dependency from third countries when it comes to strategic value chains such as medicines and active pharmaceutical ingredients. As soon the crisis will be over, we can expect policymakers to work towards reducing the EU’s dependence from third countries and bringing manufacturing to Europe. The upcoming German Presidency of the Council of the EU, which will start on 1 July, is expected to prioritize the issue of supply chains in Europe as part of its agenda, while the European Commission services recently started a dialogue with Member States representatives in the framework of the Pharmaceutical Committee in order to collect information and identify potential solutions.
For companies, it will become increasingly important to adapt their business models in order to contribute to mitigating shortages and ensuring a stable supply chain.
The accelerating digitalization of healthcare
As countries went in lockdown in an attempt to halt the spread of COVID-19, the use of telehealth platforms for delivering various healthcare services – including doctors’ consultations – increased significantly. In addition, experts pointed out that in order to control the pandemic, the creation of an infrastructure for citizens to share their health data – in line with EU’s data privacy standards – will be key. Importantly, it seems that European citizens would in fact be willing to share their data: according to a recent study published by the German medical journal Ärzteblatt, a majority of Germans would be willing to share their personal health data to help combat the COVID-19 outbreak. These findings are also in line with the results of a special Eurobarometer which found that 42% of Europeans would be willing to share their personal data “to improve medical research and care”, the highest score for any category.
In the short term, there is a clear opportunity for health and digital stakeholders to join forces in order to provide common solutions to the crisis, as the European Commission just launched an initiative to collect ideas about deployable Artificial Intelligence and Robotics solutions that could help face the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. In the medium term, the above-mentioned trends will act as accelerators for the digital transformation of the healthcare sector and will provide the European Commission with the right momentum to move forward with its ambitious plans related to the creation of a European Health Data Space.
A stronger role for Brussels when it comes to coordinating Member States’ initiatives in healthcare
The current crisis is showing that, although healthcare governance in the EU is mainly a national competence, the European Commission has a role to play when it comes to facilitating cooperation between Member States. In this context, Member States started to collaborate on the transfer of patients and of healthcare professionals across the EU, depending on the needs and the capacity of countries’ healthcare systems. Additionally, the European Commission launched a joint procurement initiative for personal protective equipment to which most Member States took part, which is expected to deliver the much-needed equipment in the near future. Momentum for a stronger role of the EU when it comes to joint procurement is growing, as the European Commission is also planning to launch a joint procurement initiative for investigational therapeutics to target COVID-19. From a political perspective, the European Parliament President David Sassoli also proposed to launch a discussion on creating a new European purchasing agency which would allow Member States to jointly buy medicines. Additionally, on 24 March the European Commission launched the “COVID-19 Clinical Management Support System” in order to create connections and synergies across Europe among the hospitals indicated as reference centres for COVID-19. The initiative is based on the experience of the European Reference Networks, virtual networks involving healthcare providers across Europe that the European Commission set up to address rare diseases that require highly specialized treatment and a concentration of knowledge and resources.
Therefore, in the post-COVID-19 world, we could expect a stronger role of the European Commission when it comes to joint procurement in the health sector, enhanced cooperation on disease management and control among Member States, and potentially a wider remit for European Reference Networks.
Deeper public-private partnerships to boost research efforts
In the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, the European Commission has been swift in mobilizing 48.5 million euros as part of the Horizon 2020 annual work programme to fund 18 projects to advance understanding of the virus. Additionally, a call for research proposals announced by the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) – a public-private partnership between the EU and the pharmaceutical industry through its association EFPIA – is expected to provide 90 million to support the development of treatments and diagnostics to tackle COVID-19 and improve the EU’s preparedness for potential future outbreaks. Such partnerships are an important opportunity to demonstrate the value of a collaborative approach between industry, academia, researchers and policymakers for public health.
As soon as the COVID-19 pandemic comes to an end, policymakers and stakeholders will have the opportunity to assess learnings from the current crisis. We can expect to see a greater focus on public-private partnerships to ensure preparedness for delivering clinical research, in particular in relation to infectious diseases.
These are only some of the issues that businesses and organizations will have to navigate in the upcoming months, which show that the need for public affairs and communications activities in the healthcare sector is now greater than ever.
At Edelman we are supporting clients through these challenging times. Our integrated offer, which combines communications, digital and public affairs, is well placed to help organizations to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Our range of services includes strategic counsel to “navigate the new normal,” working with impacted organizations to build a case for support with key institutions and policymakers, through to helping clients manage their challenges and come up with online and creative solutions.
For more information on how we can help please contact:
Gurpreet Brar, Global COO, Public Affairs Practice & General Manager, Brussels: Gurpreet.Brar@edelman.com
Nicola Scocchi, Director and Head of Health & Wellbeing at Edelman Brussels: Nicola.Scocchi@edelman.com