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Frontex announces an internal inquiry into media reports of pushbacks in the Aegean

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Last week (23 October) Bellingcat* reported that the EU’s border agency, Frontex, was complicit in illegal pushbacks.

Asked about the report (26 October) Adalbert Jahnz, European Commission spokesperson on migration said: “We have indeed seen the report by Bellingcat and a number of other media and we are taking this matter very seriously. The Commission is deeply concerned about reports of pushbacks or other forms of non-compliance with EU law, including safeguards for protecting fundamental rights and the right to access to asylum.”

Jahnz said that Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson had been in contact with the executive director of Frontex and Greek authorities, the Commission will: “expect both the Greek authorities and Frontex to investigate any such reports thoroughly and ensure full compliance with EU law. We remain in close contact with both the Greek authorities and with Frontex in relation to the required follow up.”

Today (27 October), Frontex announced an internal inquiry into the media reports, but added that: “no documents or other materials have been found to substantiate any accusations of violations of the law, or the Frontex Code of Conduct by deployed officers.”

Frontex Executive Director Fabrice Leggeri, said: “In our conversation and contacts, I informed EU Commissioner Ylva Johansson that we are looking into the accusations levelled by several news organisations related to our activities at Greece’s external borders. We aim to uphold the highest border guarding standards in all of our operations and do not tolerate any violations of the fundamental rights in any of our activities.”

Frontex does not have a mandate to investigate the activities of EU member states, but it has carried out two investigations in “operational dialogue” with Greece and found no evidence of illegal acts in one incident and are still looking into the other. Frontex says that the situation in the eastern Aegean has been complicated for the vessels deployed by Frontex to patrol because of a disagreement between Greece and Turkey over their maritime borders, it says that this has affected search and rescue activities in the area. 

A joint investigation by Bellingcat, Lighthouse Reports, Der Spiegel, ARD and TV Asahi, which received a grant from the Investigative Journalism for Europe fund found that Frontex assets were involved in one pushback incident at the Greek-Turkish maritime border in the Aegean Sea, were present at another and have been in the vicinity of four more since March. Pushbacks or ‘refoulement’ are prohibited under international law.

*Bellingcat is an independent international collective of researchers, investigators and citizen journalists

EU

Proposed France security bill leads to protests over press freedom

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Thousands of French people took to the streets on Saturday (21 November) to protest pending legislation that aims at protecting police officers and increasing public surveillance, writes .

The legislation, dubbed the 'Global Security Act', is a comprehensive security law that is supported by MPs from the governing party. The draft contains numerous stringent provisions, amongst which Article 24 has become the chief cause of protests. It would apply to civilians and journalists alike and would make it a crime to show images of an officer’s face unless it has been blurred. Publication on social media or elsewhere with the intent of undermining an officer’s “physical or psychological integrity” could be punished by a year in prison or fines of up to €45,000 (USD $53,000). Other concerning provisions of the draft bill include Article 21 and Article 22, which aim to increase surveillance by utilizing drones and pedestrian cameras.

According to the government, the law is intended to protect police officers from online calls for violence. However, the critics of the law fear that it would lead to endangering journalists and other observers who record police at their work. This becomes critically important during violent protests. It also remains to be seen how courts would determine whether images or videos were actually posted with intent to harm the police. The protest was encouraged by organizations like Reporters without Borders, Amnesty International France, the Human Rights League, journalists’ unions and other civil society groups.

Amnesty International France has said: "We believe that this proposed law would lead France to be out of line with its international human rights commitments. We alert parliamentarians to the serious risks of such a proposal for the right to freedom of expression and call on them to mobilise in the context of the parliamentary review to delete Article 24 of the proposal."

Lawmakers in the National Assembly are scheduled to vote on the bill Tuesday, after which it will go to the Senate.

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EAPM: Keeping tabs on lung cancer and Commission pharma strategy

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Good day, and welcome, health colleagues, to the first European Alliance for Personalised Medicine (EAPM) update of the week. We have more news on the upcoming EAPM round table on lung cancer, as well as all the usual health-care updates, writes European Alliance for Personalised Medicine, Executive Director Denis Horgan.

Lung-cancer screening and European Beating Cancer Plan

Yes, we are all aware that by far the best way to reduce numbers of lung cancer patients is to persuade smokers to stop. Although not all sufferers are, or have ever been, smokers. High-risk groups exist, of course, and early diagnosis is vital. Currently, five-year survival rates stand at a mere 13% in Europe and 16% over in America. This will be discussed in our upcoming event on 10 December. 

It is the most commonly found cancer in men and lung cancer in women is being represented by a “worrying rise” according to the World Health Organization.  Some one billion people on the planet are regular smokers. And figures show that lung cancer causes almost 1.6 million deaths each year worldwide, representing almost one-fifth of all cancer deaths. 

The European Respiratory Society and the European Society of Radiology (also a supporter of the event, as is the European Cancer Patient Coalition - ECPC), the societies have recommended screening for lung cancer under the following circumstances: “In comprehensive, quality-assured, longitudinal programmes within a clinical trial or in routine clinical practice at certified multidisciplinary medical centres.”

NELSON and victory?

The NELSON study into computed tomography (CT) screening of lung cancer showed that such screening reduces lung cancer deaths by 26% in high-risk asymptomatic men.  The findings also indicated that, with screening, the results could be even better in women.

For screening to be cost effective, it has to be applied to the population at risk. For lung cancer, this is not simply based on age and sex, as it is in the majority of breast or colon cancer screening. Europe needs to involve all key groups in developing recommendations and guidelines for implementation, adapted according to the healthcare landscape of individual countries. 

Various member states have already shown a willingness to move forward in lung-cancer screening, and several countries representatives will take part in the event.

The Alliance and its stakeholders realize that, among other elements, what is required in Europe is: continuous screening monitoring, with regular reports; assured consistency and enhanced quality of commented data for the screening reports; reference standards for quality and process indicators should be developed and adopted. 

All of the above will be discussed at the lung-cancer screening event, and it is envisaged that a coordinated plan will emerge, which will make its way to Commission and Parliament policymakers and member state health system chiefs.

You can check out the agenda of the 10 December conference here, and register here.

EU Pharma strategy on the horizon 

Affordability, availability and sustainability are the main focus points of the EU’s new pharmaceutical strategy, due to be published tomorrow (25 November). Coming in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the EU’s pharmaceutical strategy aims to “future-proof” the European health-care sector. The new strategy, set to be unveiled on Wednesday, is designed to improve and accelerate patients’ access to safe and affordable medicines while also supporting innovation in the EU pharmaceutical industry. 

Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides has previously described the strategy as a “cornerstone” of health policy over the next five years. It is considered a key pillar of the Commission’s vision to build a stronger health union, as President von der Leyen set out in her 2020 State of the Union speech. It will also inform the newly proposed EU4Health Programme and align with the Horizon Europe programme for research and innovation, as well as contribute to Europe’s Beating Cancer plan. 

And the European Commission has unveiled the first building blocks of a broader health package aimed at increasing the range of preparedness tools to respond to future cross-border health threats. Patient-oriented approach A first part of the strategy underlines that “research priorities should be aligned to the needs of patients and health systems.” 

Therefore, the whole EU system of pharmaceutical incentives should be reoriented to stimulate innovation in areas of unmet medical needs, such as neurodegenerative and rare diseases as well as pediatric cancer. An example of unmet medical needs mentioned in the document is antimicrobial resistance (AMR), which decreases a doctor's ability to treat infectious diseases and perform routine surgery. By 2022, the Commission will explore new types of incentives for innovative antimicrobials, as well as measures to restrict and optimise the use of antimicrobial medicines.

COVID 'mabs'

The US drug regulatory agency, FDA (Food and Drug Administration), has just issued an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for the treatment of mild to moderate intensity COVID-19 in adult and pediatric patients who they have not been hospitalized. The therapy, still under investigation, is based on monoclonal antibodies and goes by the name of bamlanivimab. This therapeutic agent, developed by the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, is a monoclonal antibody (mab) similar to those that were part of the cocktail of drugs for COVID-19 that was administered to Donald Trump. 

Beginning EU Health Union

The European Commission is beginning the building of the new European Health Union to help strengthen the EU’s health security framework, and to reinforce the crisis preparedness and response role of key EU agencies. The creation of the European Health Union was announced by the European Commission‘s President, Ursula von der Leyen, in her State of the Union address. The Commission is putting forward a set of proposals to reinforce Europe’s health framework as more co-ordination is needed at an EU level in order to step up the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and future health emergencies. 

Protecting the health of European citizens

The proposals focus on revamping the existing legal framework for serious cross-border threats to health, as well as reinforcing the crisis preparedness and response role of key EU agencies such as the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA). President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen stated: “Our aim is to protect the health of all European citizens. 

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the need for more coordination in the EU, more resilient health systems, and better preparation for future crises. We are changing the way we address cross-border health threats. Today, we start building a European Health Union, to protect citizens with high quality care in a crisis and equip the Union and its member states to prevent and manage health emergencies that affect the whole of Europe.” 

Von der Leyen urges gradual lifting of coronavirus lockdowns

European governments should lift coronavirus lockdowns and other social restrictions gradually to prevent a third wave of infections, according to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Europe has been grappling with a second surge in Covid-19 infections since September which has led to the re-introduction of lockdowns in certain countries and an overall stepping up of restrictions across the region. 

Despite a slowdown in cases in some countries in recent days, the numbers are still high and are not yet showing clear signs of a cresting. In the meantime, Europeans are pondering whether they’ll be able to gather with their families over the holiday period.

Vaccine hope

News that the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine is effective and could have up to 90% efficacy was met with widespread joy on Monday (23 November). “We expect COVID-19 vaccines to develop into a significant market as new products gain approval and begin to meet the high demand for protection from the disease,” according to a brief analysis by Fitch Solutions. It notes that with more products looking likely to pass regulatory hurdles, “these products will help to develop COVID-19 vaccines into a multi-billion-dollar commercial opportunity”. 

Prices are expected to rise in the short-term as countries look to secure access in light of positive Phase 3 trial results, but over the long-term are expected to fall back as new products enter the market,” the briefing added. “Companies will soon be in a position to capitalize on success in Phase III trials through commanding high prices for vaccines,” the analysis states.

Extra plenary session between Christmas and New Year’s Eve

The European Parliament is preparing for an extra plenary session between Christmas and New Year’s Eve to give its consent to a possible post-Brexit trade deal with the UK, according to several EU officials and diplomats. It is likely to be held on 28 December, to give EU governments the opportunity to have the very last say, as foreseen by the bloc’s procedures, before the end of the UK’s Brexit transition period on 31 December.

Private Greek hospitals compelled to take COVID-19 patients

The Greek government took over two private hospitals in Thessaloniki on 19 November in which transmission of the coronavirus has been particularly widespread. The decision was reached after the private clinics failed to voluntarily provide 200 beds for COVID-19 patients despite appeals by the Health Ministry. Public hospitals in Thessaloniki and other parts of northern Greece have been struggling to cope with the influx of coronavirus patients, adding beds from other wards and setting up isolation tents after reaching their official capacities. .

And that is everything from EAPM for now, do stay tuned during the week for further updates on all health-related issues, stay safe, and remember to check out the agenda of EAPM’s 10 December lung cancer round table here, and register here.

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Trial of ex-French president Nicolas Sarkozy begins

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Nicolas Sarkozy has been under investigation for years He was nicknamed the "bling-bling" president for what many in France saw as his lavish tastes - but now Nicolas Sarkozy (pictured) faces the stark reality of a soulless courtroom. He has gone on trial accused of corruption and influence-peddling, for allegedly trying to bribe a magistrate in return for information about an investigation into his party finances.

Sarkozy is the first ex-president in modern France to appear in the dock. He led France from 2007 to 2012. His first court appearance was brief, however. The session was suspended after 30 minutes - until Thursday - because a key figure in the case, former senior judge Gilbert Azibert, is required to have a medical examination. He is 73 and did not appear in the dock with his co-accused - Sarkozy, 65, and the ex-president's former lawyer Thierry Herzog. There is a question mark over the court proceedings because of the general coronavirus disruption. The trial is set to run until 10 December.

If found guilty, Sarkozy could face a 10-year prison sentence and €1m (£889,000) fine. Another former right-wing president, Jacques Chirac, was given a two-year suspended prison sentence in 2011 for diverting public funds and abusing public trust. The offences dated back to his time as mayor of Paris. But he did not appear in court, owing to ill health. He denied wrongdoing. French magistrates have spent years investigating allegations of corruption dating back to Sarkozy's election campaigns and period in office.

This case is linked to a long-running investigation into the right-wing politician's suspected use of secret donations to fund his 2007 presidential campaign. The prosecution alleges that Sarkozy and lawyer Thierry Herzog sought to bribe Gilbert Azibert with a prestigious job in Monaco in return for information about that investigation.

It is known as the "wiretapping case" in France, because phone calls between Sarkozy and Herzog were tapped in 2013-2014, in which Sarkozy used the alias "Paul Bismuth" and they discussed Judge Azibert. French media report that Sarkozy was heard telling Herzog "I'll get him promoted, I'll help him."

Sarkozy denies any wrongdoing - and he points out that Judge Azibert did not get the Monaco position. "Gilbert Azibert got nothing, I made no approach [on his behalf] and I've been rejected by the Court of Cassation," Sarkozy said in 2014, referring to his battle to clear his name. In October 2013 magistrates dropped him from their investigation into claims that he had accepted illicit payments from L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt for his 2007 presidential campaign.

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