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EAPM – Last chance to register for Million Genome Stakeholder Co-ordination Framework meeting and a ‘stronger’ European Health Union is on the horizon 

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Greetings, colleagues – welcome to the European Alliance for Personalised Medicine (EAPM) update, and look sharp – the B1MG meeting takes place tomorrow (21 October), so now is the time to register. And a ‘stronger’ European Health Union is horizon, while COVID 19 and Brexit are still making waves, writes EAPM Executive Director Denis Horgan.

1 Million Genome Stakeholder Coordination Framework meeting

Registration is still very much open for the 1 Million Genome Stakeholder Co-ordination Framework meeting on 21 October. One of the core aims of the initiative is to support the connection of national genomics and data infrastructures, co-ordinate the harmonization of the ethical and legal framework for sharing data of high privacy sensitivity, and give practical guidance for the pan-European co-ordination of implementing genomic technologies in national and European health-care systems. 

Earning and retaining the trust of patients, research participants and society at large is paramount for data sharing in genomics and health. Robust policies, and broad participation of different stakeholders in the development of these policies is key to robust frameworks. The discussion tomorrow will deal with these topics. 

Attendees will be drawn from key stakeholders from the community whose interaction will create a cross sectoral, highly relevant and dynamic discussion forum. These participants will include healthcare professionals, decision makers, patient organisations, and European umbrella organizations representing interest groups and associations actively engaged in the field of personalised medicine. 

Register here and read the full agenda here.

Stronger’ European Health Union

 In the face of COVID-19, the Commission is proposing to build a stronger European Health Union, notably by strengthening the role of existing agencies and establishing a new agency for biomedical advanced research and development. The coronavirus crisis has shown that the European Union lacks effective tools for combatting emergencies that transcend national borders. 

When it comes to health care, there is currently only a minimum level of co-operation at the EU level; member states are responsible for their own health care systems. A divided EU on health issues has shown itself to be troublesome. Think, for example, of the battle between European countries for the last batch of masks, India blocking the export of a possible coronavirus treatment, or Trump using a law of war to make medical equipment available to Americans only. 

At the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, it was “every man for himself”. Such an approach was both incomprehensible and indefensible when it comes to our health, if you ask me. Now that we are facing a second wave of COVID-19 patients, we should focus on the future and on working together. 

 The health law and policies adopted within a given territory are based upon the values that society holds central. As such, through its regulatory function, health law and policy formulates, embodies and makes explicit the goals, values and ethics that underpin national health regimes. The WHO envisages health policy as the tool that specifies the health goals of a society, defines a vision for the future and, perhaps most importantly, builds consensus around that vision. 

WTO members reject IP rules waiver for coronavirus technologies

World Trade Organization members have rejected a proposal to temporarily waive intellectual property rights, patents and other protections for any medical technologies relating to COVID-19. Certain members — including the EU, US and the UK — opposed the waiver. “There is no evidence that intellectual property rights are a genuine barrier for accessibility of COVID-19-related medicines and technologies,” said a UK spokesman.

Coronavirus: EU interoperability gateway goes live

To exploit the full potential of contact tracing and warning apps to break the chain of coronavirus infections across borders and save lives, the Commission, at the invitation by member states, has set up an EU-wide system to ensure interoperability – a so-called ‘gateway'. After a successful pilot phase, the system goes live today with the first wave of national apps now linked through this service: Germany's Corona-Warn-App, Ireland's COVID tracker, and Italy's immuni. 

Together, these apps have been downloaded by around 30 million people, which corresponds to two-thirds of all app downloads in the EU. 

Single Market Commissioner Thierry Breton said: “Many member states have launched voluntary contact tracing and warning apps, and the Commission has supported them in making these apps safely interact with each other. Free movement is an integral part of the Single Market – the gateway is facilitating this while helping save lives.”

Health and Food Safety Commissioner Stella Kyriakides added: “Coronavirus tracing and warning apps can effectively complement other measures like increased testing and manual contact tracing. 

"With cases on the rise again, they can play an important role to help us break the transmission chains. When working across borders these apps are even more powerful tools. Our gateway system going live today is an important step in our work, and I would call on citizens to make use of such apps, to help protect each other.”

Italy and Austria tighten coronavirus restrictions and six-week coronavirus lockdown in Ireland

Italy and Austria have introduced stricter measures to curb the rise in new coronavirus cases. On Sunday (18 October) Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte declared the latest restrictions on public life, including midnight closing times for bars and restaurants from Monday. Venues could also be forced to close at 9pm in case of large crowds. Conte said: “The strategy is not and cannot be the same as in the spring,” when Italy had one of Europe’s highest death rates from COVID-19 while at the same time paying a high economic price due to the lockdown.

Ireland is imposing a six-week lockdown to suppress the spread of COVID-19 in what its leader called “Europe’s strictest regime”. Prime Minister Micheál Martin announced on Monday night (19 October) in a television address to the nation following days of behind-the-scenes discussions with his public health experts.

Brexit

Will the EU and UK still be speaking to each other following last week’s son et lumiere? It would appear so - the UK has officially declared its willingness to hold further talks with the EU, walking back from threatening/announcing it was going to leave the table. “I now believe it is the case that Michel Barnier has agreed both to the intensification of talks and also to working on legal texts,” Michael Gove told British MPs, describing the EU’s move as “constructive” and a “reflection of the strength and resolution” shown by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

And that is all for the start of the week – do stay safe and well, and don’t forget to register for the 1 million Genome Stakeholder Co-ordination conference tomorrow (21 October). Register here and read the full agenda here.

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Technological solutions are the key to tackling Europe’s second wave of Covid-19

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Europe is suffering a brutal second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, with a number of major economies back in lockdown after a brief reprieve over the summer. Last week, Italy joined a growing list of countries with more than a million recorded cases of the virus, Poland’s National Stadium has been transformed into a field hospital, and Spain has declared a national state of emergency that may extend well into 2021. The total number of cases on the continent now exceeds 14 million, and hospital systems are stretched near to their breaking point.

Slivers of good news, however, have begun to emerge. Several hard-hit countries may be experiencing the turning of the tide: though infection rates remain elevated, Germany has noted the “first signs” that the curve is flattening, while the virus’ reproduction rate (R0) recently dropped below 1 in France. Even in Belgium, which was recently so badly-off that coronavirus-positive nurses in Liège were asked to continue working as long as they were asymptomatic, the situation is slowly stabilising after daily new infections dropped by 40 percent week-on-week.

With the approaching holiday season heightening pressure on policymakers to re-open economies by the end of the year, ensuring that the right tools are in place will prove essential if a devastating third wave is to be prevented. That said, the roll-out of reliable COVID-19 testing regimes has already proved far more difficult than health authorities may have anticipated, and a persistent onslaught of virus-related scams has thrown a further wrench into public health authorities’ attempts to control the deadly virus’s spread.

One such scandal recently surfaced from within Europe’s decimated travel industry, where a criminal gang was found to be selling fake negative COVID-19 tests to passengers departing from Paris Charles de Gaulle airport amid tighter immigration rules. The counterfeit certificates bore the names of real Parisian medical laboratories, and the scheme was only exposed after a passenger bound for Ethiopia was found to be carrying a false certificate. If Europe is to safely emerge from this latest lockdown, the independent and trustworthy verification of health information will need to be the cornerstone of any new policy.

More secure and more convenient COVID test results

Fortunately, a number of promising high-tech solutions have already popped up. Swiss company SICPA’s CERTUS MyHealthPass, for example, uses an existing blockchain-based technology to allow the universal verification of health credentials, and is currently being trialled to help both maritime crews and airline passengers.

The CERTUS solution will be a particularly welcome development for seafarers, who have struggled to go about their usual duties since the beginning of the pandemic. Many national authorities have questioned the validity of seafarers’ COVID-19 tests and taken an inordinately long time to approve their health documents, leaving seafarers often left stranded onboard months after their scheduled disembarkation. Moreover, the rejection of health and travel documents often prevents potential replacements from boarding these same vessels, damaging the mental wellbeing of the workers in limbo and bringing vital transnational operations to a grinding halt.

The airline industry, unsurprisingly, is wrestling with a similar challenge. Countries are increasingly requiring negative PCR tests for entry—while some are already planning for how to integrate coronavirus vaccination certificates into their border control procedures—but scandals like the false COVID test ring discovered at Charles de Gaulle airport have ratcheted up the need for internationally-recognised procedures like the technological solution offered by MyHealthPass. The scheme is capable of authenticating both paper documents and digital information so as to guarantee the validity of WHO-approved COVID-19 test results. Seafarers, airline staff and international travellers can then carry their authenticated digital health pass on their smartphones, allowing the re-opening of essential international services in the short-term and helping national and local authorities better anticipate and prepare for future outbreaks.

Self-isolation still falling short

In addition to ensuring that easily-verified coronavirus tests & other health information can help open borders and allow normal economic activity to resume as soon as possible, governments should also be using this time to resolve the missing links that have so far caused testing and isolation strategies to fall through. If rapid and widespread COVID-19 testing is finally beginning to take off, bolstered by more accurate blood tests to detect past infection, authorities must also be doing more to encourage—and compensate—populations which may have been exposed to the disease to self-isolate so as to allow these developments to adequately take hold.

In the months since the heady days of summer, a clearer image of Europe’s failures to control the pandemic has indeed begun to emerge. In the UK, where COVID-19 cases have exceeded 1.3 million, less than one-fifth of people who reported coronavirus symptoms complied with national self-isolation regulations, and authorities handed out a paltry handful for fines for quarantine violations when returning from a high-risk area.

Here again, countries with high marks handling the coronavirus outbreak have turned to technological solutions to both ease the burden of complying with self-isolation requirements and ensure compliance with rules in force. Taiwan, for example, has emerged as the international gold standard for COVID-19 control measures. After closing international borders and regulating travel early, Taiwan has successfully maintained a rigorous regime of contact tracing and technology-enhanced quarantine which has helped the island nation keep cases and fatalities low. In particular, the Pacific country adeptly implanted an “electronic fence system”, which uses cell phone location data to ensure that quarantined individuals stay at home. Technology also provided a solution for the practical and mental health concerns of those in quarantine, from offering easy food delivery options to a chatbot developed with popular messaging app LINE.

European authorities failed over the summer to implement the technological solutions they needed to stop a second wave in its tracks. This second round of lockdowns has given them a fresh chance to construct the pillars of a comprehensive and secure strategy for testing and quarantining which could stave off a third wave of the virus.

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Coronavirus: Commission to provide 200 disinfection robots to European hospitals

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As part of its continued efforts to tackle the spread of coronavirus and provide member states with necessary equipment, the Commission launched the purchase of 200 disinfection robots that will be delivered to hospitals across Europe. Overall, a dedicated budget of up to €12 million is available from the Emergency Support Instrument (ESI). Hospitals from most Member States expressed a need and interest in receiving these robots, which can disinfect standard patient rooms, using ultraviolet light, in as quickly as 15 minutes, and thus help prevent and reduce the spread of the virus. The process is controlled by an operator, who will be located outside of the space to be disinfected, in order to avoid any exposure to the UV light.

Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager said: “Developing technologies can set up forces of change and we see a good example of this in the disinfection robots. I welcome this action to help our hospitals in Europe reduce the risk of infection – an important step in containing the spread of coronavirus.” Commissioner for the Internal Market, Thierry Breton, added: “Europe has remained resilient and solidary during the current crisis. From repatriating EU citizens stranded abroad to increasing the production of masks and ensuring that medical equipment reaches those who need it within the single market, we are acting to protect our citizens. Now we are deploying disinfection robots in hospitals so that our citizens can benefit from this potentially life-saving technology.”

The robots are expected to be delivered in the coming weeks.

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Italy reports 28,337 new coronavirus cases on Sunday, 562 deaths

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Italy had registered 28,337 new coronavirus infections over the previous 24 hours, the health ministry said on Sunday (22 November), down from 34,767 the day before. The ministry also reported 562 COVID 19-related deaths, down from 692 on Saturday and 699 on Friday. There were 188,747 coronavirus swabs carried out in the past day, the ministry said, against a previous 237,225.

Italy was the first Western country to be hit by the virus and has seen 49,823 COVID-19 fatalities since its outbreak emerged in February, the second highest toll in Europe after Britain’s. It has also registered 1.409 million cases. While Italy’s daily death tolls have been the highest in Europe over recent days, the increase in hospital admissions and intensive care occupancy has slowed.

The number of people in hospital with COVID-19 stood at 34,279 on Sunday, a rise of 216 from the day before. That compared with a daily increase of 106 on Saturday. The number of patients in intensive care rose by 43, following an increase of just 10 on Saturday (21 November), and now stands at 3,801. When Italy’s second wave of the epidemic was accelerating fast, until around a week ago, hospital admissions were rising by around 1,000 per day, while intensive care occupancy was increasing by about 100 per day.

The northern region of Lombardy, centred on Italy’s financial capital Milan, remained the hardest hit area on Sunday, reporting 5,094 new cases. The southern region of Campania, which has only about 60% of Lombardy’s population, chalked up the second highest number of new cases, at 3,217.

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