Good morning, good morning, and welcome to the second European Alliance for Personalised Medicine (EAPM) update of the week – plenty of news today concerning health matters in Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the Union speech earlier this week and, as ever, updates on coronavirus testing. On with the show, writes EAPM Executive Director Denis Horgan...
First, a brief reminder that EAPM is hosting the ESMO event tomorrow (18 September), agenda here, register here, and the Alliance is very much looking forward to taking its seat at the round table during the German EU Presidency conference on 12 October, agenda here, register here.
State of the Union
Lest we forget, EU citizens have always highlighted in responses to the Eurobarometer poll that health care should be a priority at a pan EU level, a sentiment that has undoubtedly been echoed in the work that EAPM has done, encouraging policymakers in the area of cancer, particularly lung cancer for pan EU action and the EU health data space.
So, it is always encouraging when health policy is mentioned in an EU State of the Union address, as Commission President Ursula von der Leyen most certainly did this week.
Addressing MEPs in the European Parliament on Wednesday (16 September), von der Leyen said her commission would try to reinforce the European Medicines Agency and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. The president of the European Commission urged EU members to build a stronger health union, promising a biomedical research agency and a global summit.
In her first annual State of the European Union address, Ursula von der Leyen said the coronavirus pandemic had underlined the need for closer cooperation, stressing that people were “still suffering”. “For me, it is crystal clear – we need to build a stronger European Health Union,” she said. “And we need to strengthen our crisis preparedness and management of cross-border health threats.”
Von der Leyen said her Commission would try to reinforce the European Medicines Agency and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. And she announced the creation of a new agency for biomedical advanced research and development dubbed BARDA.
She said she would work with Italy during its presidency of the G20 - a grouping of the world’s richest countries - to convene a global health summit next year to share the lessons of the coronavirus crisis. “This will show Europeans that our Union is there to protect all,” she said. Health policy remains the responsibility of EU member states and, while Brussels has tried to coordinate the bloc’s response to the epidemic, national lockdowns and border rules have varied widely. Von der Leyen, a doctor by training, also warned countries not to act selfishly when on vaccines, which are widely seen as the solution to end the crisis.
“Vaccine nationalism puts lives at risk. Vaccine cooperation saves them,” she said. She also called for a reformed and strengthened World Health Organization “so that we can better prepare” for future pandemics. The Commission chief also tried to reassure citizens that the EU now has a grip on the coronavirus pandemic and she proclaimed the Commission’s intent to seize the moment, use the money, increase its powers and press EU countries to help “build the world we want to live in”.
She also called for the EU to “lead reforms” at the WHO and World Trade Organization “so they are fit for today’s world.”
Testing times on testing
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has defended the coronavirus testing system, saying it is trying to meet a "colossal spike" in demand. It comes as the government said it was drawing up a list setting out who will be prioritised for tests. Care home residents and staff are likely to be near the top of the list, as Johnson acknowledged ministers were concerned about infection rates. The PM told MPs a new "action plan" for care homes will soon be released.
Earlier, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said schools could be considered for priority testing. On Wednesday (16 September), coronavirus cases in the UK increased by 3,991, taking the total to 378,219, according to figures from the government. A further 20 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for COVID-19. This brings the UK death total by this criteria to 41,684.
Johnson said 89% of those who have in-person tests get them the next day. He told Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday: "I think most people looking at the record of this country in delivering tests across this nation will see that it actually compares extremely well with any other European country."
The BBC reports that the government will publish details of its plan to prioritize coronavirus tests in the next few days, with NHS staff and patients and those in care homes top of the list.
Not how you start, it’s how you’re Finnish...
A new app, intended to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus by tracing contacts, has been downloaded nearly two million times in Finland, a country of 5.5 million. Its neighbours have by contrast either declined to launch a national app or cancelled it due to privacy concerns.
Nearly one in three Finns have downloaded the new coronavirus contact tracing app, according to the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, THL. The Koronavilkku app (“Corona blinker”), released barely a week ago on iOS and Android, has already been downloaded over 1.8 million times. Finland's total population is about 5.5 million people, national broadcaster Yle reported. The THL's initial goal was to reach up to a million users in September. Users of the app send randomly-generated codes via Bluetooth signal to each other when they come into close contact for at least 15 minutes. The smartphones then store anonymous information about the contact.
During the first week, a total of 41 of Koronavilkku's users have entered so-called unlock codes into the app. These unlock codes are given to users diagnosed with the coronavirus infection, THL's director of information services, Aleksi Yrttiaho, explained. The unlock codes thus enable the infected person's phone to alert other app users of exposure risk.
The number of exposure notifications is not received, Yrttiaho added. “In the first couple of days, the application has been downloaded significantly more than we had anticipated. People want help in preventing the spread of coronavirus,” he mused.
The app is available in Finnish and Swedish, and an English version is currently in the works. With 8,327 Covid-19 cases, 336 deaths and over 7,300 recoveries, Finland has been the least-hit Nordic nation.
“We’ll never be prepared for the next pandemic if we only invest in R&D targeting diseases grabbing headlines at the time,” said Nick Chapman, CEO of Policy Cures Research. Concerning an earlier epidemic, a G-FINDER report shows that funding to fight Ebola fell as the West African pandemic waned. Similarly, clinical trials and funding for Zika dwindled in 2018. Total funding in this area reached a peak of $886 million in 2018 – a 14% increase on the previous year.
New restrictions in Netherlands' cities
New coronavirus restrictions will be introduced in parts of the Netherlands where coronavirus cases are mounting, and Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, Delft and Leiden are on the hit list. Health minister Hugo de Jonge said on Wednesday that the rising number of coronavirus infections is ‘not good’, particularly in the big cities in the west of the country.
On Wednesday, a further 1,500 positive test results were reported to public health institute RIVM, and Germany and Belgium have put Noord and Zuid-Holland provinces on their code red list – which means they should be avoided. De Jonge and prime minister Mark Rutte will hold a press conference on Friday evening (18 September) at 19h to announce what measures are being brought in on a regional basis. “There is no single solution to reduce the number of infections,” De Jonge said. “We want to hit the virus hard, but keep the impact on society and the economy to a minimum.”
And that is everything for this week – do enjoy the ESMO event, agenda here, register here,