PARLIAMENTARY QUESTIONS
Oral question to the European Commission on the „Problem of limited access of developing countries to some vaccines“ by Charles Goerens - 06.10.2009

Oral question to the European Commission on the „Problem of limited access of developing countries to some vaccines“ by Charles Goerens

 

Three quarters of the world’s population have no access to the vaccine against the influenza A(H1N1) virus (‘swine flu’). The problem of fair access to the most modern medicine has again reared its head in the context of the risk of a swine flu pandemic. Such viruses generally appear in deprived regions where the local populations are, of course, the first to be affected by the risk of pandemics. Each year, the countries of the southern hemisphere provide those of the north with influenza virus samples to update seasonal influenza vaccines. More than two years ago, Indonesia informed the WHO that it was no longer willing to share, free of change, samples of the A/H5N1 influenza virus isolated on its territory. In this way, Indonesia intended to alert the international community to the need for developing countries to benefit from the exchange of virus samples and, in particular, from access to high-quality vaccines against pandemic strains of influenza at affordable prices. The fact that these samples are shared without payment is shocking, whereas the availability of high-quality vaccines against pandemic illnesses at reasonable prices should be the norm. 

1) Can the Commission tell us what obstacles stand in the way of generalised access to vaccines for developing countries? 

2) Does the Commission share the view that it is morally indefensible to persuade developing countries to provide the strains necessary for the development of a vaccine while the justified calls of these countries to protect the health of their populations are met with flat refusal? 

3) What measures does the Commission intend to take to increase the access of developing countries to vaccines against the influenza A(H1N1) virus? 

4) Beyond measures taken in this specific case in the context of the pandemic, is the Commission willing to take action to ensure that developing countries have lasting access to vaccines? If so, can the Commission outline the measures to be taken to improve health infrastructure in developing countries, an essential precondition for fairer access to vaccines.

5) Lastly, can the Commission specify how it intends to involve the major humanitarian actors, both from the institutional sphere and civil society (NGOs), in order to ensure that the needs of as many people as possible are met in this regard?

 

Answer by the Commission (Leonard Orban, Member of the Commission, Romania)

 

 

I would like to thank the distinguished MEP Charles Goerens for his question, which gives me the opportunity to deal with both the aspects relating directly to the influenza A (H1N1) pandemic and wider aspects concerning the European Commission’s contribution to improving health infrastructures in developing countries.

The Community has taken action against the influenza A (H1N1) pandemic both internally and externally. In fact, we are dealing with a crisis requiring a global approach, both for reasons of effectiveness in terms of protecting our citizens and from considerations linked to solidarity with less developed countries.

We talk about effectiveness in terms of the rapid alert systems, the close monitoring of the development of the pandemic and actual virus itself, as well as the assessment of the effectiveness of the preventive and curative measures adopted in the countries where the pandemic first occurred, which are all vital elements in preparing and adapting our own responses. However, we also talk about solidarity because the Europe Union, as a main financer of public development aid and a key partner of a large number of developing countries, must support these countries in facing these new threats.

In our response to these threats, the Commission and the European Union as a whole are not starting their efforts from scratch. Based on the precedent of bird flu, resulting from the H5N1 virus, the EU has been able to introduce, along with international organisations such as the World Health Organisation, the World Bank and others, effective procedures for exchanging information and coordinating technical assistance, as well as financial instruments such as a trust fund at the World Bank. As Mrs Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organisation, says, the world has never been so well prepared for a pandemic. The Commission has already played and continues to play a particularly important role in these systems whose components have now been extended to cover every type of flu threat.

As regards the developing countries’ generalised access to vaccines, the new flu pandemic has revived the debate which has been going on for well over two years within the WHO and the working party making the preparations for the flu pandemic, set up at the request of the World Health Assembly, following the decision made by Indonesia, referred to by Mr Goerens.

This week in Geneva, the WHO is presenting its first recommendations from the group in which the Community has played an active role. In accordance with the World Assembly’s resolution, the final recommendations must be presented to the WHO’s Executive Council, which will meet at the end of January. At that juncture, the best possible balance must be identified between, on the one hand, boosting the research into and rapid development of new medical products largely derived from private sector research, for which intellectual property rights nowadays provide a key form of incentive, and, on the other hand, fairness in terms of providing access to the products developed from this research.

The European Community has reservations regarding any restriction on the exchange of biological material required to carry out the relevant research activities. Active international collaboration on a transparent basis and coordinated by legitimate institutions, such as the WHO and its network, is crucial to the rapid development and distribution of solutions for responding to the pandemic.

In the specific case of influenza A (H1N1), for which there were no vaccine stocks available, there has also been the issue of production capacity and who has first option on this capacity when huge orders are placed by the countries which have the necessary resources. The commitment made by some vaccine manufacturers and, more recently, by some countries to earmark 10% of their production or orders for donations or sale at a reduced price to developing countries is an encouraging sign of global solidarity.

As far as the Commission is concerned, the provision of assistance to third countries in tackling the pandemic is vital and must not just be limited to access to vaccines when they are available. It is of paramount importance to continue the support provided by the Commission and Member States in various forms, aimed at consolidating health infrastructures, along with assistance for projects, sectoral or general budget support for partner countries, and even support for international organisations.

Respect for the principle of allowing countries to assume responsibility for their own development and the commitments to provide effective aid will need to be guaranteed by ensuring, in particular, that attention will continue to be focused on priority diseases and interventions. The response to a pandemic is actually based, first and foremost, on having health infrastructures that are better equipped and treat cases early in order to have available, in a fair manner, preventive resources when they are available.

In the event of a severe crisis, the European Commission will be able to mobilise its humanitarian and emergency intervention resources and will also be able to demonstrate flexibility in its use of the resources already allocated to partner countries which have requested assistance. During such severe crises, non-governmental organisations and, in fact, major institutional networks will definitely have an important role to play. The Commission therefore knows that it can count on these agencies also effectively swinging into action.

 

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