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Qatar stands up to the Saudi bullies and wins

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Today (4 December) it was announced that the Saudi Arabian government is close to agreeing to lift its blockade against Qatar. Having stood firm against Saudi aggression and disinformation, the Qataris will congratulate themselves on having successfully defeated the bully boy tactics of their much larger neighbour, writes Emily Barley.

Jared Kushner, senior advisor and son-in-law to US President Trump, reportedly travelled to Saudi Arabia with a team of envoys early this week. His brief was to bring an end to the blockade of Qatar, in a last push for foreign policy wins in the President’s final days in office. It seems that this move was enough to bring Saudi Arabia and the other blockaders into line, and get the deal mediated by Kuwait over the line.

Qatar has weathered the blockade led by its neighbours for over three years, drawing on its gas and oil derived wealth and nimble policy making to stand up to the bully-boy tactics of a coalition of Gulf states led by the Saudis.

In June 2017, a group of Middle Eastern countries – including the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and others – imposed a blockade on Qatar. This involved banning their citizens from travelling to or living in the country, expelling Qatari nationals, closing their air space to Qatari aircraft, and closing the country’s only land border.

The group’s demands ranged from shutting down Doha-based news network Al Jazeera to ending military cooperation with Turkey. Perhaps most tellingly, they also demanded Qatar align with the other Arab countries militarily, politically, socially, and economically.

When state-backed newspapers in Saudi Arabia suggested that the country might turn Qatar into an island by building a canal on the border and dumping toxic waste into it, a Financial Times editorial argued that Qatar was being targeted by its neighbours for refusing to accept a ‘shadow role’, choosing to instead pursue its own foreign policy and support the growth of Arab media through Al Jazeera.

After initially backing the blockade in 2017, President Trump quickly withdrew his support when Saudi officials asked him to support a ground invasion of Qatar – a plan which presumably awakened Trump to the reality of their motivations.

The Qatari government has consistently refused to comply with the demands, stating that to do so would mean surrendering sovereignty. The country is determined to carve out its own path, with the space to deviate from Middle Eastern norms – no matter how much pressure it comes under from hostile neighbours.

That pressure has taken many forms, with the blockade causing economic damage as well as tearing families apart. A key plank of the aggression against Qatar has included accusing the country of funding terrorism, despite it being a member of the US-led coalition against Islamic State and hosting the largest US off-shore air base in the world.

Saudi Arabia embarked on a disinformation campaign, flooding social media with fake accounts that latched on to a broad range of issues including British football clubs and coronavirus to attack Qatar. These accounts smear any critic of Saudi Arabia as a pro-Qatar-shill and spread lies about Qatari support for terrorism. Last year The Guardian revealed that the disinformation campaign has even extended to creating a series of unbranded Facebook ‘news’ pages.

Since the start of the blockade it has attracted widespread criticism: human rights groups in Qatar have argued that the blockade was arbitrary, abusive and illegal, while the UN’s International Court of Justice ruled in favour of Qatar in the legal dispute over aircraft. In what may prove to be the final nail in the coffin of the blockade, a report published in November 2020 by a UN special rapporteur labelled the blockade illegal, and called for it to end.

As Saudi Arabia sought and could not find support for its actions outside of the Middle Eastern countries under its immediate influence, its will to continue to the conflict reportedly waned – giving Kushner and his envoys an open door to push on. People close to the talks said that Saudi Arabia was motivated to end the blockade in part by its desire to get back onto a friendly footing with the US as President Trump leaves office and President-elect Biden prepares to enter The White House.

For the last three years the tiny, prosperous country of Qatar has stood up against attacks and smears from its closest neighbours, and the imminent deal shows that its leaders’ determination not to let the bullies win has paid off. Governments around the world will now be watching closely to see how this victory changes the balance of power in the region, and what the Qataris will do next with their freshly-won influence.

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A social and human rights pillar to the India-EU map to 2025

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Imagine if the announcement on waiving the intellectual property rights of the COVID-19 vaccines would have come from Brussels rather than Washington, writes Simone Galimberti.

Maybe just the day before the EU-India Summit in Porto or perhaps it could have been announced live during the virtual summit.

India, with South Africa, took a leading role in demanding an uplifting of the patents’ rights but till the Biden administration announcement, their request was always rejected and the EU was among those vocally defending big pharma patents’ rights.

With the Biden White House policy reversal, the Europeans wasted a gold opportunity that could have eased their way into raising less glamorous but certainly important topics for an EU that professes to live up to certain values embraced as foundational to its external relation work.

Instead, while all the attention over the summit is veering towards trade and green investments, we are running the risk of overlooking the rights and social dimensions of the relationship between the India and the EU.

Talking about human rights, in particular, is going to be a tricky task for the EU leaders because is an issue where Prime Minister Modi is not going to be so accommodative nor inclined to act.

It is true that recently a low key 9th EU-India Human Rights Dialogue was held in Delhi, an instrument that was reactivated after seven years but the level of commitment of the EU towards universal rights should find a much bigger space than the just two short paragraph found in the latest strategic document endorsed by both parties, the EU-India Strategic Partnership: A road map to 2025.

Fortunately the European Parliament, despite some shenanigans amid pressure from the India Embassy to the European Union, issued a recommendation on the 29th of April 2021 expressing its concerns over the situation of human rights in India.

In a speech on 29 April on behalf of High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell at the European Parliament, Ylva Johansson, Commissioner for Home Affairs said “Human rights and democratic values are also at the heart of our engagement with India. Let me assure you that the European Union raises these matters with India through different channel”.

The EU Leaders should take this statement to the letter but, though soft attempts at raising the issue will be certainly made by the Europeans during the summit, we cannot reasonably expect them to do the heavy lifting on this despite widespread criticism around the world and with some of the major human rights organizations launching an appeal to the EU to take human rights seriously while dealing with India.

Given the fact that the EU must elevate its relationship with India, what could be the most effective formula to do that?

In addition to discussions at political levels, human rights should be vigorously tackled at multiple levels through interactions by experts and practitioners in Track II format initiatives but also through a bottom up “people to people” human rights agenda with more support for grassroots rights defenders.

At the same time a stronger “official” voice from Brussels needs to be raised when serious abuses occur, be the worrying developments on the Citizenship Amendment Act or a national registry of citizenship registry or the unjust imprisonment an octogenarian Jesuit activist priest or the recent forced closing of the Amnesty International office last September without mentioning the abuses happening in Kashmir.

Complementary to pursuit a bolder human rights agenda, embracing other dimensions of a broader India and EU social agenda is not only paramount on its own but can also reinforce the former.

For example, a rethinking of the EU-India Forum that last time was held in 2012 could be a first step.

Besides its Track II dimension that should be strengthened and enlarged, the Forum could become an overarching framework with an ambitious civil society agenda founded on continuous opportunities for interactions and exchange among people, especially youths, especially now that webinars and virtual conference have become a new norm.

More youth engagement among youth could lead, with some vision, to an 'India-EU Youth Strategy', creating a new level of bilateral ambitions focused on the future generations.

New programs are needed but also existing initiatives could be dusted off and revitalized in order to lay the foundations for such youth strategy.

For example, it will be significant to revamp the Joint Declaration on Common Agenda on Migration and Mobility (CAMM), giving a boost to students and young professional mobility, including exchange programs, mutual recognition of academic qualifications and recognition of academic skills.

In addition, can the EU find among its Foreign Policy Instruments, FPI, the adequate financial space for a major boost in funding for a new 'Tagore -Erasmus Programme', allowing a quantum leap in the student exchange between Indian and Europe?

Another area of interest would be for the EU member states to carve out, from the broader and much more complex to negotiate migration pact, the revamping of the EU Blue Card, a scheme that in theory attracts in the common European job market young professionals from third states that it is still well below its potential.

While in the area of research and analysis, a dynamic partnership among think tanks, the EU-India Think Tanks Twinning Initiative, is currently being undertaken, what could be done to better include and involve Indian universities in the Horizon Europe, the European Research Council, the Marie Sklodowska-Curie fellowship programs as suggested in the recently released report by the European Parliament concerning the future of EU-India relations?

The European University Initiative that enables cross nations consortia of universities within the EU could encourage, with additional grants, collaborations and exchange programs with Indian counterparts, laying the stones for broader initiatives in what could become a Joint Indo European Educational Area.

Imagining a new and different India - EU relationship requires ambition.

The EU has successfully managed to move past a narrow mono dimensional approach to its partnership with India, shifting from on aid assistance frame then upgraded into a broader economic framework.

With security and defense now dominating the agenda together with trade and investment, there is a need to create additional layers for what could become a true force for the promotion of multilateralism, enhancing a potential geopolitical partnership that can become a model for others like minded democracies to follow.

Yet, it won’t be possible to achieve such deep and ingrained level of cooperation without a steadfast commitment for shared values based on trust and the adequate “intimacy” and comfort indispensable to express divergent opinions, including the willingness to share and absorb criticisms based on fairness and equality among partners.

While Prime Minister Modi should rightly not refrain himself from his disappointment over the EU’s position in relation to the vaccines’ patents, the EU leaders should not shy away from embracing an effective social agenda centered around human rights, human development and more educational opportunities for youth.

Thinking about it, there is no better place of doing it than in Porto where the EU leaders will try to chart a new course for strengthening its social union.

The summit can be remembered for adding a new layer to the cooperation with India, one centered on the respects of universal rights and shared values.

Certainly, the EU-India Strategic Partnership: A road map to 2025 is in need of some bold changes.

Simone Galimberti is based in Kathmandu. He writes on social inclusion, youth development, regional integration and the SDGs in the context of Asia Pacific.

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Therapeutics Strategy - First rolling review of a new COVID-19 medicine

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The European Medicines Agency has today (7 May) started the rolling review of sotrovimab (VIR-7831), a monoclonal antibody developed for the treatment of COVID-19. The review follows hot on the heels of the EU COVID-19 Therapeutics Strategy presented yesterday and is a first step towards the Strategy's target of starting seven rolling reviews of COVID-19 therapeutics in 2021. The rolling review launched by EMA will assess sotrovimab's effectiveness in preventing hospitalization and death; safety and quality. A rolling review is quicker than a regular evaluation as data is reviewed as it comes in. Should the European Medicines Agency recommend authorising the treatment at the end of its review, the European Commission will move swiftly to authorize it. 

The EU Therapeutics Strategy supports the development and availability of much needed COVID-19 therapeutics and covers the lifecycle of medicines: from research, development and manufacturing to procurement and deployment. It is part of the strong European Health Union, in which all EU countries prepare and respond together to health crises and ensure the availability of affordable and innovative medical supplies – including the therapeutics needed to treat COVID-19. More details on the EU Therapeutics Strategy are available in a press release and factsheet.

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EAPM: Stronger together against cancer and with good data sharing

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Good morning, one and all, and welcome to the European Alliance for Personalised Medicine (EAPM) update – there is much positivity concerning the battle against cancer and the consultation on the health data sharing plan, so some refreshing good news after all the recent COVID-related despondency, writes EAPM Executive Director Dr. Denis Horgan.

Porto Declaration on Cancer Research

The Porto Declaration on Cancer Research was launched during the European Cancer Research Summit 2021, held on 3 May at the Portuguese Institute of Oncology (IPO) in Porto under the Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

The declaration presented by Portuguese Minister Manuel Heitor is the result of the work done by several researchers, scientific and clinical leaders and political decision-makers, who have reinforced the need to broaden Europe's Beating Cancer Plan over recent months, particularly through extending and reinforcing the European network of Comprehensive Cancer Centres (CCCs), based on the reinforcement of three types of research infrastructure:

Translational research infrastructure
Clinical and prevention trial infrastructure
Outcomes research infrastructure

These infrastructure components are increasingly being deemed critical to prevention, early detection, diagnosis, treatment, monitoring disease treatment and patient support and assistance. National participation in the European network of Comprehensive Cancer Centres is led in Portugal by the “Porto Comprehensive Cancer Centre”, based in the Porto IPO, in partnership with its associated laboratory, i3S, which recently received funding of around EUR 15 million for new equipment under the North Regional Operational Programme.

The Porto Declaration on Cancer Research strengthens the commitment of the Trio Presidency of the Council of the European Union (Germany, Portugal and Slovenia) to significantly reduce cancer mortality by 2030, with a goal of 75% of cancer patients in Europe surviving for at least 10 years. Ensuring this goal across Europe means reinforcing the development of a continuum of research activities, from basic to clinical research, including the reinforcement of the European network of Comprehensive Cancer Centres and the three research infrastructure components mentioned above, as well as active participation by the patients and their associations in order to mitigate social and economic inequalities.

The Porto Declaration on Cancer Research thus calls on all European citizens and their Member States to stimulate the synergies in the areas of regional, national and European funding so that cancer research infrastructure access will be easier and fairer.

Speaking at the Cancer Research Summit on 3 May, Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said that it’s key the Commission’s Cancer Plan “works hand in hand” with the Horizon Europe Mission on Cancer in order to “ensure coherence between research goals and policy objectives.”  screening program was suspended five years ago due to low turnout and needs to be upgraded, she explained. 

Consultation on health data sharing plan opened by Commission

On 3 May, the Commission published an open public consultation on the European Health Data Space (EHDS) - an important building block of the European Health Union. The EHDS aims to make full use of digital health to provide high-quality healthcare and reduce inequalities. It will promote access to health data for prevention, diagnosis and treatment, research and innovation, as well as for policy-making and legislation. The EHDS will place individuals' rights to control their own personal health data at its core. The consultation will remain open for responses until 26 July 2021. Health and Food Safety Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said: ″The European Health Data Space will be a crucial component of a strong European Health Union. It will enable EU-wide collaboration for better healthcare, better research and better health policy making. I invite all interested citizens and stakeholders to take part in the consultation and help us leverage the power of data for our health. This will have to rest on a strong foundation of non-negotiable citizens' rights, including privacy and data protection.″

Innovative solutions and digital technologies including artificial intelligence (AI), can transform healthcare systems. They make them more sustainable and improve people's health. The development of these technologies requires secure access by researchers and innovators to substantial amounts of health data.

This public consultation focuses on:

the access to and use of health data for healthcare provision, research and innovation, policy-making and regulatory decision;

fostering a genuine single market for digital health services and products, including innovative ones.

The creation of a European Health Data Space is one the key priorities of this Commission in the area of health. The purpose of the EHDS is to promote health-data exchange and support research on new preventive strategies, as well as on treatments, medicines, medical devices and outcomes. In the Communication on the European Strategy for Data, the Commission announced its objective to deliver concrete results in the area of health data and to understand the potential generated by developments in digital technologies. The collection, access, storage, use and re-use of data in healthcare present specific challenges that need to be addressed.

This requires a regulatory framework that best serves individuals' interests and rights, especially as regards the processing of sensitive personal health data. In this context, the Commission adopted its Data Governance Act proposal (2020) with conditions regarding access to data, and provisions to foster trust in voluntary data sharing. Facilitating better access to, and exchange of, health data is essential to ensure increased accessibility, availability and affordability of healthcare. It will stimulate innovation in health and care for better treatment and outcomes, and encourage innovative solutions that make use of digital technologies, including AI.

Health commissioner offers sweeping ambitions for pharma reform and health committee publishes draft response to pharma strategy

No patient in Europe should have to go without medicines that he or she needs due to money or other obstacles, Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides has said. 

Speaking at an event organized by the European Commission and the Portuguese EU presidency, Kyriakides pledged that EU’s pharmaceutical strategy will tackle the core issues that make medicines unavailable to those who need them. 

The strategy will culminate with a legislative proposal, planned for 2022, revising the EU’s basic pharma rules, which will open the door to the overhaul. 

Kyriakides’ willingness to tear up the current rules may make drugmakers nervous, since they rely on perks like market exclusivity to protect their bottom line. The 2022 reform will take into account “the relationship with intellectual property rights to address aspects that impede the competitive functioning of markets,” she noted. “The failures of markets should not be the failures of our health systems.”

The European Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety has published a draft response to the Commission’s Pharmaceutical Strategy. The draft report is authored by Spanish MEP Dolors Montserrat from the European People’s Party who is rapporteur for the pharmaceutical strategy. The document calls on the Commission to push ahead with a number of priorities that it identified in the pharmaceutical strategy, which it published in November. Among the demands made in the draft is a call on the Commission “to incorporate new criteria into the system of incentives for research into and the development of new medicines for unmet therapeutic needs.” It also asks the Commission to review incentives and improve price transparency.

EU pharma vulnerabilities

The executive arm of the European Union on Wednesday (5 May) moved to reduce the bloc's dependence on foreign supplies of products in key fields such as pharmaceuticals and digital technology. The initiative forms part of an updated industrial strategy aimed at strengthening the EU's single market, and was presented alongside a proposal for new regulations to tackle distortions caused by foreign subsidies in the bloc.

The European Commission's new industrial strategy is an update from one made in March 2020, before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Coronavirus has wreaked havoc in the 27-member EU, making itaware that over-reliance on imports for key components such as those required in drug production and semiconductors could disrupt entire sectors.

"We are updating our industrial strategy, applying the knowledge we have accumulated during the pandemic, drawing on lessons learned and the available evidence," European Commission Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis told a news conference on Wednesday. He said that three key factors have influenced the thinking on the new strategy. The pandemic has highlighted some fragilities in the single market when exposed to particular types of disruption. There has been a growing trend in many jurisdictions to analyze vulnerabilities in key strategic value chains. And the business case for the EU's green and digital transition has become even stronger, Dombrovskis said.

Europe depends on third countries, primarily China and India, in its pharmaceutical supply chains, according to a Commission staff working document.

WHO’s emergencies programme ‘can't deal with multiple crises’

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed that the World Health Organization’s health emergencies programme is “inadequately equipped to deal with a global pandemic while simultaneously responding to other emergencies”, with chronic under-funding and under-staffing leaving it overstretched in some areas, a new report has found.

The report, penned by the Independent Oversight and Advisory Committee for the WHO’s health emergencies programme, covers May 2020 to April 2021 and will be presented at the World Health Assembly later this month. The committee is chaired by Felicity Harvey, a visiting professor at Imperial College London’s Institute of Global Health Innovation.

The programme had to leverage the entire organization during the pandemic and strengthen partnerships with member countries and expert groups to overcome those challenges, the panel found.

The report made specific mention of the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, of which COVAX is part of, noting that it has “struggled with shortfalls of political will and global solidarity, limited production capacity of vaccines and insufficient financial investment.”

Digital Green Certificate

The EU’s so-called COVID passport – the Digital Green Certificate – to travel freely during the pandemic should be ready for use from the end of June, according to Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders. At the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) of the European Parliament on Tuesday (4 May), Reynders said that the certificate will be in use before the summer. “We want to ensure that all EU citizens receive the same treatment when member states lift restrictions on free movement for holders of vaccines, recovery or test certificates,” he said. Last month, the European Commission presented its proposal for the certificate, which will provide proof that a person has been vaccinated against COVID-19, has natural immunity from it, or has a recent negative test result.

On 26 March, the European Parliament launched an accelerated procedure to fast-track the certificate’s approval, and the Parliament and the Member States are currently negotiating the practical details. In principle, however, the individual member states decide which consequences are attached to the document. These could include, for example, free access to the territory without mandatory quarantine.

And that is all from EAPM for this week – stay safe, stay well, have an excellent weekend, and see you next week.

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