EU council president Charles Michel has said the virus exposed “the gaps in our national preparedness.”
In a speech at the world health summit, he said, “just last week we had our latest European Council meeting. I have now chaired over 16 meetings where the 27 EU Leaders have addressed COVID-19. And I can tell you one thing: in a time of a crisis what we crucially need is credible data and up-to-date intelligence.
Today I will address several topics:
- global governance for global solutions – the intelligence hub is a perfect example
- the lessons learned from our European response
- and finally, the ‘one health’ approach, needed more than ever
COVID-19 has killed nearly five million people around the world. It also revealed that no country, not even the most developed, was prepared for such a pandemic. Despite the many predictions of scientists. The virus exposed the gaps in our national preparedness. But it has also exposed stark deficiencies in global governance. Information sharing is a clear example of that. This virus has been brutal and unrelenting. It has surprised us at every turn. But it has also revealed that, with the right tools for sharing critical information rapidly, we can save lives.
This means sharing data about how a virus spreads. Who are the most vulnerable. And what the best treatments are. And it’s obvious: intensive international cooperation must play a critical role.
When we cooperate with one another – and trust one another – we can build common mechanisms and solutions at global, regional, and local level.
And there is no doubt we must learn and implement new ways of working.
It is precisely for this reason that – together with Dr Tedros – we have proposed an international treaty on pandemics, rooted in the WHO constitution. This idea is supported by heads of state and government from many countries across the globe; but I know some are still reluctant.
This treaty would establish clear rules and a clear framework for everyone. It would guarantee equity and inclusiveness. It would also ensure access to information, financing, vaccines and countermeasures. It would increase capacity and resilience – at all levels.
A legally binding instrument would also be the most effective basis for an international system of prevention, surveillance, and the collection and exchange of scientific data.
Because data is critical to our decision-making.
And it is crucial in developing safe and effective measures – such as vaccines, medicines, or medical and protective equipment. I believe this intelligence hub will be an important step in bolstering our international cooperation. A clear demonstration of the benefits in setting up collaborative tools that work across sectors. Especially tools that involve both private and public stakeholders and operate on any continent.
We need to create an environment where every scientist, health worker, and government can band together for a common cause. Working together to build new solutions to protect what is most precious – our health and our lives. And that is exactly what we want to achieve with this international treaty. And we will continue to advocate and encourage the global community to support it, including in a few days’ time at the next G20 meeting, in Rome.
I want to share with you three things the EU has learned in our response to COVID-19.
First, coordination is vital.
In the European Union, health is mainly a national, or even sometimes a regional, competence. Yet early in the pandemic, we realised that information-sharing needed to be strengthened. Not only between countries but also between services within national administrations. So, one of our first actions to bolster coordination was to task our ministers to consult with each other, on a daily basis. As a result, they held video-conferences every working day, during the first month. Then three times a week in the months that followed. This was in addition to the heads of state and government meetings we held every two to three weeks. We discovered that information at national level – on infection rates, testing, or hospital capacity — was not enough to manage the crisis. So we tasked the European Centre for Disease Control to start collecting and breaking down the data, and also to make sure that our common data was based on the same common criteria. This helped us to better anticipate the next phases of this pandemic. It also helped us to provide targeted assistance to areas that needed it most. It was also extremely useful, in assessing whether to restrict or to open mobility for our citizens. It sounds simple. But this was no easy task when you consider the different national structures, agencies, practices, and ways of collecting information. Not to mention all the different languages.
This is one of the challenges that the information hub will have to overcome – on a much larger scale – at global level. But it is worth the effort – credible data are invaluable.
Second, we learned the value of fact-based and objective decisions.
Let me give you an example. Discussions on travel restrictions were extremely political and controversial, in the beginning of the crisis – especially since freedom of movement is a pillar of our Union. Today this has become a purely objective and scientific exercise. Not only because we developed a common certificate, but because the European Centre for Disease Control publishes all the information. Citizens can have an overview of the COVID situation, in their country and across the Union, at the same time as national administrations.
Third, and probably most important, we learned that solidarity is the gold standard in overcoming this pandemic.
As the crisis progressed, we adapted and developed new solutions. In some cases, we were faster than others. In others maybe slower. But we were always guided by the principle of EU solidarity and inclusiveness. We acted together. We had the same rules for everyone. Our joint procurement of vaccines is the most spectacular example of this solidarity. We shared the delivery of doses among our 27 member states. And today, more than 75% of adults in the EU are fully vaccinated — a great achievement for the EU.
We have learned many lessons from this pandemic. We continue to learn every day. And to improve our response. We must continue to adapt to the pandemic, as the situation evolves. And we will continue to do so until everyone is safe.
But everyone is not yet safe. And this is not acceptable.
The gap in vaccination rates between developed and developing countries must be solved — and quickly. This means removing the obstacles that are hampering the global roll-out of vaccines.
First, we must export doses of vaccines and this is what we did from the very beginning and are still doing at EU level.
Second, financing COVAX is not enough. We must solve the current obstacles and bottlenecks.
Third, we must fulfil our commitments on vaccine donations more quickly.
And finally, we have started, with African governments, the European Investment Bank and private partners, to develop fast-track projects to increase vaccine manufacturing capacities. I am personally convinced that we must make this international solidarity more operational and more urgent.
Allow me to raise one final point.
Until now, we have focused on the human side of health. And rightly so. But in the future, I hope we will invest more in One Health: the link between our environment, animal health, and human health. We cannot wait for a new virus to emerge. We must adapt our practices, and our behaviour, with wild animals and nature. This will ensure that viruses and bacteria, do not transfer from nature to humans. That is the key to prevention.
COVID-19 has opened our eyes to our strengths and our weaknesses.
The European project is based on the principle of human dignity. We are convinced that global challenges, like climate change, economic development or the fight against pandemics, require global solutions. We believe in a rules-based international order. We believe in universal values. We hope the international community will negotiate and agree on the future international treaty on pandemics.
Let’s keep in mind the future of our children in the spirit of our predecessors, who signed the UN Charter over 75 years ago.