Let us stop the next pandemic today – before it’s too late

Published

Opinion piece, Euractiv, 1 February 2024, by Jutta Urpilainen, European Commissioner for International Partnerships, European Commission, Stella Kyriakides, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, European Commission, Johan Forssell, Minister for International Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade, Sweden, Jakob Forssmed, Minister for Social Affairs and Public Health, Sweden, Caroline Gennez, Minister of Development Cooperation and of Major Cities, Belgium and Frank Vandenbroucke, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Social Affairs and Public Health, Belgium.

As the world is eager to move on from the Covid-pandemic, the threat of another pandemic, with devastating consequences for all of us, looms large. The probability of experiencing a new pandemic in one’s lifetime is almost 40 percent.

In our highly interconnected world, our health and well-being depend on the health and well-being of others. Our future welfare and prosperity rely on our ability to address health issues on a global scale. Working together in promoting health, strengthening health systems worldwide to achieve Universal Health Coverage, preventing new pandemics, developing new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat disease, and tackling inequalities and the health consequences of climate change and conflicts: this will be key for our prosperity. 

On January 29th, the 27 member states of the European Union therefore welcomed the EU Global Health Strategy, following efforts by the Swedish and Belgian Presidencies of the Council of the European Union. The strategy presented by the European Commission as a pillar of the Global Gateway strategy and the European Health Union, is based on deepened partnerships and involvement of all sectors that can contribute to better health for all. 

The first strategy on the EU’s role in global health, from 2010, inspired action by the EU and its member states, contributing to significant achievements. Child and maternal mortality halved and the impact of HIV and AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis reduced significantly from 1990 to 2015. The EU and its Member States, or Team Europe, is the leading funder of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and the World Health Organization, underlining our commitment to strong multilateral institutions in health with WHO at its core.

However, much has changed over the past decade. The West African Ebola outbreak, COVID-19, the triple planetary crisis, the growing threat from antimicrobial resistance and geopolitical developments which are redrawing the global health map. So have many recent achievements. The Paris Climate Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals represent common objectives for mankind. Effective vaccines present new opportunities, and in many countries, there is renewed commitment to improving global health. And for good reasons: the probability of extreme epidemics could increase threefold in the coming decades. It is highly likely that we will experience an extreme pandemic like the 1918-1920 flu pandemic.  

Through the new strategy, the EU and its member states are renewing their approach to global health. Aiming for a more strategic and holistic view in EU’s internal health policy, as well as in its external action. The first year of implementation has already proven a success in delivering results on our commitments.

As team Europe we highlight three priorities:

  • A focus on better health and well-being across people’s life course, through better living conditions that allow people to not only survive, but thrive, and live long and healthy lives. That entails access to education and employment, but also clean air and water. 
  • Building strong health systems and universal health coverage, to provide equitable access to quality health services and products, including sexual and reproductive health and rights. Such systems can withstand crises and reach even the most vulnerable. 
  • Preventing and combatting health threats, including pandemics. This includes a One Health approach combining planetary, animal and human health; integrated and collaborative surveillance systems worldwide which work together to exchange information; as well as enhancing equitable access to medical countermeasures. 

Investing in health is a key economic lever. It improves productivity, boosts employment and raises GDP. By involving all relevant sectors, instruments and policy areas, from climate and environment to research and innovation, free trade and the private sector, we recognize the potential for win-wins where health objectives overlap. For example, reduced air pollution is both good for the environment and could help save millions of lives. And access to affordable health services is key to both prevent and eradicate poverty. In 2019, 4.4% of the global population were pushed or further pushed into extreme poverty due to out-of-pocket payments for health. Significant gaps in the financing of global health must be addressed through Domestic Resource Mobilisation and complemented by the international community, where warranted, complemented by social health protection mechanisms. At the same time, we must ensure that these investments are spent efficiently, accountable to the health needs voiced by local communities and civil society. Investing in health is an investment in social and economic development and for people to reach their fullest potential. We will therefore continue to strive for strong Global Health ambitions in the context of the EU’s policies.  

We boost our global health engagement through strengthened, reciprocal partnerships with other countries, regional and international organizations. Global health is no longer merely an issue of development assistance, but rather an area in the common interest of all people and countries – where no one is safe until everyone is safe, and where everyone can contribute, including civil society, academia and companies.

The Belgian Presidency is taking this agenda forward in the coming months through a series of high-level discussions with partners from Africa. These will follow up on the EU-AU summit in 2022, boost the ongoing efforts to promote local manufacturing, deliver additional Team Europe health investments in Africa, based on new building blocks, to continue to develop an even stronger health partnership between our two regions.

The 194 WHO member states have launched multilateral negotiations within WHO on a new pandemic accord, an important priority for the Belgian presidency. Through Global Gateway, Team Europe is continuing to invest in the health systems of our partners worldwide. Our pharmaceutical research once led the way to better public health, by pioneering vaccines research against childhood illnesses and modern medicine. We can do this again. 

The right to health is a human right. In a time when global health is seriously challenged, it is time for a renewed approach to global health – the world’s future depends on it.

Jutta Urpilainen, European Commissioner for International Partnerships, European Commission

Stella Kyriakides, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, European Commission

Johan Forssell, Minister for International Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade, Sweden

Jakob Forssmed, Minister for Social Affairs and Public Health, Sweden

Caroline Gennez, Minister of Development Cooperation and of Major Cities, Belgium

Frank Vandenbroucke, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Social Affairs and Public Health, Belgium