Cypriot Stella Kyriakides (Nicosia, 1956) took office as European Commissioner for Health at the end of 2019 and in just two months she was dealing with the largest health emergency on the continent in the last century. After a period of distress due to lack of coordination, the time has come for the EU to change course. “The fragmentation [en la lucha contra la covid] it only makes us more vulnerable, ”Kyriakides said in an interview with other European media on Tuesday. The virtual meeting takes place one day before the announcement of the “European Health Union”, with which it is intended to supply in the future the shortcomings suffered during the management of the pandemic. “The health situation of a Member State depends on that of the others,” says the commissioner, looking to the horizon. “We have to work together to address these health threats.”
Question. What measures do you propose to coordinate with national health systems?
Reply. ECDC will have as part of its mandate to be able to work much more closely with them in terms of having the information of their capacity and being able to collect data on the health situation or systems. Because we need to be able to support them. But to support them, you need to have the relevant information, and to be able to perform audits and stress tests, so that we can see what the capacity and resilience of health systems is. We need this information to be available at the central level to be able, for example, to know the capacity of ICUs or hospitals. In this way you can anticipate specific threats, but also monitor production capacity, raw material needs and their availability, and see if we have vulnerability in our supply chains. By strengthening its mandate we will be in a much better place to be able to really work closely with the Member States to get the information on the ground.
P. Until recently, few States shared data with the ECDC. Does the proposal address this issue?
R. The exchange of information with the ECDC has not always been at the level we would have liked. It has improved considerably. And now you will have a bigger role when it comes to gathering information. This package of measures will also bring a change: it will be a legal obligation to exchange data with the ECDC and the European Medicines Agency (EMA, for its acronym in English).
P. The proposed EU budget for health has been cut during the negotiation of the Multiannual Financial Framework. What impact will it have on the Commission’s health plans?
R. It is true that the initial proposal has been significantly reduced, but it is still four times what we have ever had. And there will be additional funding from the Financial Framework and a contribution from the EU 4 Health program, which is still being discussed between the Council and Parliament.
We respect the powers of the States. But covid is a wake-up call
P. Many countries are likely to be uncomfortable with a greater role for Brussels in health competitions. Is there any part of the proposal that will complicate the agreement?
I don’t see that any part is going to be more complicated. This is a package that will be discussed in conjunction with the countries. And all the proposals are within the competences defined in the Treaty. We are not going to get out of it. We fully respect the powers of States. But covid-19 is a wake-up call for everyone. And we will work closely with Parliament and the Council [a quienes ahora les tocará negociar la normativa] to have a stronger Health Union.
P. How about the BioNTecho / Pfizer ad about their vaccine?
R. The announcement of these companies on Monday was a very positive and encouraging sign, I felt that everyone needed such news. We have a vaccine strategy in place since June that shows the strength of our solidarity, of working together. We have negotiated for the States and have already concluded 3 agreements, with AstraZeneca, Sanofi and Johnson & Johnson [el de BioNTech es el cuarto]. The goal is to have a portfolio of as many promising candidates as possible, which will increase our chances of being effective. The news is positive, but we need to understand that until we have a sufficient number of safe and effective vaccines for each citizen, the pandemic will not be resolved. This is something we have to take into account because Europeans are tired.
P. Are countries prepared for its deployment?
R. This is something that has been going on since October. We have asked the Ministers of Health to put their infrastructure and vaccination strategies into operation so that, as soon as a vaccine is found, it can be deployed as quickly as possible, stored in the way they need and thus reaches the citizens as soon as possible. And taking into account the different possible vaccines. We will follow up on national plans at the end of November to see if countries are really moving forward.
The exchange of information with the ECDC has not always been desired
P. What is the planned vaccination schedule?
R. Negotiations are being carried out with the intention of acquiring 1.3 billion doses of potential vaccines from a diversified portfolio, with the option of purchasing another 500 million more. We are discussing a set of six or seven potential vaccines. So the answer will depend on how many safe and effective vaccines we have. I don’t want to hypothesize. We have to wait.
P. How will the doses be distributed between countries?
R. I think the important thing in this strategy is that we have been working with all the states. No country will be left behind. Everyone will have access at the same time and the distribution will be based on the population. This solidarity is a good example of what we can achieve when we work together, and a model that explains the proposal of the European Health Union. We still hope to conclude more agreements, but we will have to wait for science, which will tell us when a vaccine is safe and effective. There is a long way to go. And until then we will have to continue with hygiene and social distancing measures that, as we know, are the only ones that can contain this virus.
P. What is the approximate cost of the vaccination program?
R. We are using a large part of the 2.7 billion euros from the Urgent Assistance Instrument to finance the pre-agreements for the purchase of vaccines, but I cannot exactly quote the figure.
Information about the coronavirus
– Here you can follow the last hour on the evolution of the pandemic
– This is how the coronavirus curve evolves in the world
– Download the tracking application for Spain
– Guide to action against the disease