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EU executive wants Health Union after fractured pandemic response

Brussels - The European Commission on Wednesday proposed the creation of a new European Health Union in light of fractured EU government responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.

''Cooperation and coordination among EU countries''

The European Health Union would aim to strengthen cooperation and coordination among EU countries, the commission said.

"The past year has taught us how crucially important health is for each and every one of us," Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said.

"It has shown us how fragile our societies are and how fast everything can be turned upside down by something so small that it is invisible to the naked eye," she said.

Under a new regulation on serious cross-border threats to health, it would be possible to declare an EU-level public health emergency.

This could, for example, trigger certain processes, such as allowing for the development, stockpiling and procurement of crisis-relevant products.

The legislative proposals still need to be approved by the EU countries and the European Parliament.

Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic earlier this year, the EU countries have struggled to come up with a coherent response to the threat.

This put the commission repeatedly at odds with the 27 EU governments: The countries are reluctant to give up power for health issues and want to retain authority in the matter, while the commission is calling for a more centralized response.

More power to EU bodies and less power to EU governments

The new proposals would essentially give slightly more power to EU bodies and agencies to mitigate the risks.

For example, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) could see their mandates expanded to better survey countries' capacities and keep track of how many hospital beds are available.

ECDC would, under the commission proposal, be authorized to mobilize an "EU health task force" to support EU countries in times of crisis, and make non-binding recommendations to governments.

EMA would be entitled to coordinate clinical trials, and monitor and mitigate the risk of shortages of medicine.

To this end, the commission envisages hiring additional staff members: 73 for ECDC, 40 for EMA, and 21 for its own Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety.

This would come in at a price tag of 605 million euros (711 million dollars) over seven years, Kyriakides said.

Also on Wednesday, the commission officially authorized a contract with US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and German firm BioNTech to secure up to 300 million vaccine doses from those developers.

This is the fourth contract with a pharmaceutical company for potential vaccine doses.

Earlier this week, Pfizer announced that data showed a 90-per-cent efficacy rate of its vaccine, making it one of the most promising candidates so far.

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