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#EAPM – Phil Hogan faces Crucible-esque issues as COVID-19 political correctness holds sway and EAPM Newsletter available!

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Welcome, one and all, to the last European Alliance for Personalised Medicine (EAPM) update of les grandes vacances – August ends on Monday, so most (but decidedly fewer than usual) are getting ready fo the grand return to work next week, writes EAPM Executive Director Denis Horgan.

Before we get on with the main news, be sure and check EAPM’s monthly newsletter, which is now ready, click here. It covers the health news of the past month, and looks forward to key EAPM events that are just around the corner.

Hogan resigns

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But first, a word on the sad demise this week of Irish Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan (pictured), who resigned on Wednesday evening (26 August), following controversy over alleged breaches of COVID-19 guidelines during a trip to his native Ireland, a spokesman for the commissioner said. 

Hogan attended a golf dinner last week that outraged the Irish public and led to the resignation of an Irish minister and the disciplining of several lawmakers. He had insisted on Tuesday (25 August) that he had adhered to all rules during the trip, and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, while accepting his resignation, thanked Hogan for his work as trade commissioner and for his successful term as agriculture commissioner in the previous Commission, the Juncker Commission. Von der Leyen described him as a valuable and respected member of the College of Commissioners.  

Of course, COVID 19 is a very serious issue, but the question is how the guidelines are applied as well as the lowest common denominator in the application of standards.  If we go for the lowest commonest denominator and undermining our way of life, are we giving in to the disease in another way, and are we not losing our humanity in not seeing the issue, in this case the person that Phil Hogan is and the office he once represented?

For this part of the update, I want to highlight the good work that Hogan has done over the years as well as the work that he did on trade. The commissioner championed health care as well, and had spoken at EAPM events.

The fate of Phil Hogan is similar to the issue in the play The Crucible by Arthur Miller, in the sense that everyone acted hysterically about an alleged breach of rules, and political correctness won the day. The play is a fictionalized version of the Salem witch trials and tells the story of a group of young Salem women who falsely accuse other villagers of witchcraft. The accusations and ensuing trials pushed the village into a hysteria between February 1692 and May 1693. More than two hundred people were accused. Thirty were found guilty, nineteen of whom were executed by hanging (fourteen women and five men).

Of course, the former commissioner made a mistake, but the issue was blown into the stratosphere by those wanting to say that they are whiter than white, so as to protect the public good and score political points with the broader public. 

Clearly, public health guidelines must be adhered to but one must look to each case as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson did, with Cummings. Hogan did have a COVID-19 test, was negative, checked with the relevant website as well as the department but to no avail, he had to bow out...as political correctness won the day. The controversy of what he did or did not do has now fallen silent, as there was really nothing to it in the end. There was no monetary fine, no punishment of any kind, but the fact was that he had to resign ....

By all accounts, he was the right person for the job and in his interaction with EAPM was a very considered and supportive member of the broader health-care community. 

A real shame. European Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis will take over the trade portfolio temporarily after Hogan’s resignation, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced on Thursday. The Hogan saga was evidence writ large that von der Leyen has raised the European Commission’s ethical bar — and that may make it harder to clear in future. “As Europe fights to reduce the spread of the coronavirus and Europeans make sacrifices and accept painful restrictions, I expect the members of the College to be particularly vigilant about compliance with applicable national or regional rules or recommendations,” von der Leyen said on Thursday (27 August).

World Health Organization Pandemic Policy Committee meets

The World Health Organization (WHO) Pan-European Commission on Health and Sustainable Development met for the first time on Thursday. At its concluding press conference, chairman Mario Monti — former Italian PM and current president of Bocconi University — drew attention to the way COVID-19 has revealed weaknesses in current health systems. “The pandemic has illuminated with a rather dark light the stark inequalities in our modern world,” he said. “But it also has also underlined the truism that no one is safe until everyone is safe.”

Rethinking the PHEIC

And the WHO said on Thursday it was setting up a committee to consider changing the rules on declaring an international health emergency, following criticism of its COVID-19 pandemic response.  The World Health Organization declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) over the new coronavirus on 30 January 30 – at which time the respiratory disease had infected fewer than 100 people outside China, and claimed no lives beyond its borders. But under the current International Health Regulations (IHR) governing preparedness and response for health emergencies, there are no lower, intermediate levels of alarm beneath a full PHEIC, either on a global or regional scale. The WHO intends to interact with the new independent review panel looking at the broader response, as well as the WHO’s internal oversight panel, with plans to deliver an update at the World Health Assembly in November, and a final report at that gathering in May 2021.

Vaccination percentages

The EU, Britain and other EU partners such as Switzerland and Norway want a future vaccine to cover 40% of their populations, as opposed to the 20% initially set out by the global procurement mechanism COVAX. According to a document adopted in late July, the countries noted that at-risk groups account for around 40% of the population.

Back to school

According to a study by BMJ, COVID-19 has not caused the deaths of any otherwise healthy schoolchildren in the UK. Children's risk of needing hospital treatment for coronavirus is "tiny" and critical care "even tinier", they say. However, black children, those who are obese and very young babies have a slightly higher risk. The BMJ study looked at 651 children with coronavirus in hospitals in England, Wales and Scotland. It covers two-thirds of all children's admissions in the UK due to COVID-19 between January and July and confirms what is already known about the minimal effects of the virus on children. A "strikingly low" 1% of these 651 children and young people - six in total - had died in hospital with COVID-19 compared with 27% across all other age groups, the study found. Eighteen per cent of the children needed intensive care. And the six who had died had had "profound" underlying health conditions that had often been complex and themselves life-limiting. Children with such conditions remained vulnerable to the virus and must take precautions, the researchers said. But for others, the risk was extremely low. 

And that is everything for this week – enjoy your weekend, which is possibly your last before returning to work, here is our newsletter again and be sure to check in with EAPM again on Tuesday (1 September).

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Norway again postpones end to COVID lockdown

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A man wearing a protective mask carries shopping bags as he walks on the streets of Oslo following an outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Oslo, Norway. NTB Scanpix/Hakon Mosvold Larsen via REUTERS

Norway postponed for a second time on Wednesday (28 July) a planned final step in the reopening of its economy from pandemic lockdown, due to the continued spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19, the government said, writes Terje Solsvik, Reuters.

"A new assessment will be made in mid-August," Health Minister Bent Hoeie told a news conference.

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Measures that will be kept in place to halt the spread of COVID-19 include bars and restaurants being limited to table service and limits of 20 people on gatherings in private homes.

The government in April launched a four-step plan to gradually remove most pandemic restrictions, and had completed the first three of those steps by mid-June.

On July 5, Prime Minister Erna Solberg said the fourth step could come in late July or early August at the earliest because of concerns about the Delta coronavirus variant. Read more.

About 80% of adults in Norway have received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 41% of adults are fully vaccinated, according to the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

Thanks to an early lockdown in March 2020 and tight restrictions that followed, the nation of 5.4 million people has seen one of Europe's lowest rates of mortality from the virus. Some 800 Norwegians have died from COVID-19.

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EU signs deal with GSK for supply of potential COVID drug

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Company logo of pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline is seen at their Stevenage facility, Britain October 26, 2020. REUTERS/Matthew Childs/File Photo

The European Union has signed a contract with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK.L) for the supply of up to 220,000 treatments of its investigational monoclonal antibody therapy sotrovimab against COVID-19, it said on Wednesday (28 July), write Francesco Guarascio with additional reporting by Jo Mason, Reuters.

The drug, which is developed together with U.S. firm Vir Biotechnology (VIR.O), can be used for the treatment of high-risk coronavirus patients with mild symptoms who do not require supplemental oxygen, according to the Commission.

The deal is a boost to GSK work on potential treatments for COVID-19 after the company played a limited role in the development of vaccines. Rather than making its own coronavirus shot, GSK has focused on supplying its booster to other developers and has partnered with Sanofi (SASY.PA) to develop a jab.

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GSK confirmed the deal in a statement on Wednesday, saying it represented "a crucial step forward for treating cases of COVID-19" in Europe.

The drug is currently being assessed by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) under a rolling review.

It has received emergency authorisation in the United States to treat mild-to-moderate COVID-19 patients who are at high risk of developing a severe infection.

The contract has been backed by 16 of the 27 EU states, which can buy the drug only after it is approved by EMA or by national drug regulators. The price agreed for potential purchases has not been disclosed. A spokesman for the Commission declined to comment on the matter.

Monoclonal antibodies mimic natural antibodies that the body generates to fight infection.

The deal with GSK follows a contract the EU signed in April with Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche (ROG.S) to secure about 55,000 doses of a potential treatment based on a cocktail of monoclonal antibodies developed by Roche together with U.S. drugmaker Regeneron (REGN.O). Read more.

Apart from monoclonal treatments, the only other anti-COVID drug the EU has bought is Gilead's (GILD.O) remdesivir, an antiviral medicine. Last year, the EU reserved half a million courses after the drug obtained a conditional EU approval.

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Coronavirus disinformation: Online platforms take new actions and call for more players to join the Code of Practice

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The Commission has published the reports by Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Microsoft and Google on measures taken in June to combat coronavirus disinformation. The current signatories and the Commission are also calling on new companies to join the Code of Practice on disinformation as it will help broaden its impact and make it more effective. Values and Transparency Vice President Věra Jourová said: “The COVID-19 disinformation monitoring programme has allowed to keep track of important actions put in place by online platforms. With new variants of the virus spreading and vaccinations continuing at full speed, it is crucial to deliver on the commitments. We look forward to the strengthening of the Code of Practice.”

Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton added: “The EU stood by its promise to deliver enough doses to safely vaccinate every EU citizen. All stakeholders now need to assume their responsibility to beat vaccine hesitancy spurred by disinformation. While we are strengthening the Code of Practice with platforms and signatories, we are calling for new signatories to join the fight against disinformation”. 

For example, TikTok's campaign supporting vaccination, with the Irish government, reached over one million views and over 20,000 likes. Google continued to work with public health authorities to show information about vaccination locations in Google Search and Maps, a feature available in France, Poland, Italy, Ireland, and Switzerland. On Twitter, users can now train automated systems to better identify violations of the platform's COVID-19 disinformation policy.

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Microsoft extended its partnership with NewsGuard, an Edge extension that warns about websites spreading disinformation. Facebook cooperated with international health authorities to increase public awareness of vaccine efficacy and safety and with Michigan State University (MSU) researchers to better detect and attribute deepfakes. These joint efforts need to continue in view of the persisting and complex challenges that online disinformation still presents. The Commission's COVID-19 disinformation monitoring programme has been extended until the end of 2021 and reports will now be published every two months. The next set of reports will be published in September. Following the recently published Guidance, the signatories have kicked off the process to strengthen the Code and launched a joint call for interest for potential new signatories.

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