The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared on 12 March that Europe was at the centre of the COVID-19 pandemic. EU institutions have assisted Member States and coordinated efforts to fight the virus while attempting to ensure a continuity of EU policy implementation. At the same time, medical and research societies have shared valuable clinical information on COVID-19 to support front-line healthcare workers.
Developments at EU level
The responses of national health systems to the present pandemic have mainly been overseen at Member State level and differ from country to country. Nonetheless, EU institutions have implemented a range of measures to assist Member States and to some extent coordinate the approach at European level. The EU has for example introduced economic measures, facilitated repatriation of EU citizens and supported calls and projects related to COVID-19 research (see the European Commission and IMI websites).
The pandemic has also affected the implementation of European legislations and programmes. The European Union will for example extend the deadlines of upcoming Horizon 2020 calls. As negotiations on the next Multiannual Financial Framework (European budget) became less of a priority, and it may take more time to reach an agreement, the implementation of Horizon Europe may be delayed. In addition, the European Commission proposed to postpone the application date of the Medical Devices Regulation by one year to 26 May 2021 (see a related BioMed Alliance statement here).
The European Commission has also launched a “COVID-19 Clinical Management Support System”, which is based on experiences with the European Reference Networks and aims to help create rapid connections across Europe among the hospitals identified by Member States as reference centres for COVID-19. There will be a dedicated Commission helpdesk, that will set up teleconferences to facilitate information exchanges between clinicians across Europe on the treatment of COVID-19. The application form to the system is available here.
Experts across Europe that are jointly engaging in research on COVID-19 also face practical barriers, for example when it comes to the GDPR application. Therefore, the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) released a statement on the processing of personal data in the context of the COVID-19 outbreak. A health expert group within the EDPB is also working to release a guidance on the processing of health data for research purposes in the context of the COVID-19 outbreak
The role of medical and research societies
The BioMed Alliance (representing 33 medical and research societies) has closely followed developments at EU level, provided information to its members and reached out to EU policy makers.
Medical and research societies have been supporting health professionals and researchers while they work in the front line of the fight against COVID-19. These societies have shared valuable scientific information about COVID-19 (also discipline-specific), including e-learning materials, guidelines, academic articles and papers. An overview of some of the materials that they have made available, BioMed Alliance Statements and other pandemic-related resources is provided on the website of the BioMed Alliance.
Nonetheless, these not-for-profit medical and research societies face serious challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Medical congresses are being cancelled or postponed and thus these societies are faced with substantial costs that may threaten their existence and thus their ability to provide clinical guidance to health professionals. They therefore need support from policy makers to help them overcome the financial hurdles that they currently face; read more here.
What will the future hold?
The major question that all actors, from policy makers to researchers, are asking themselves is what lies ahead. While much remains uncertain, the need for cooperation and coordination in healthcare, politics and research is clear. The current pandemic places health at the forefront of political discussions and raises awareness on the importance of sufficient support for health research and the healthcare sector in general. Any way forward requires commitments from all actors in society and cooperation and unity are key.