EU funding rules for Covid19 must be transparent and fair

The European Commission has allocated millions of euros to promote research on Covid-19 - 62 European organisations want to ensure access to healthcare technologies is guided by public health needs, not market dynamics

In a letter addressed to the European Commission and members of the European Parliament, the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) and 61 other European organisations are demanding that the EU and national governments’ response to the Covid-19 crisis is based on accountability and transparency, ensuring access to healthcare technologies is guided by public health needs and not by market dynamics.

Since January, the European Commission has allocated millions of Euros to promote research on COVID-19, including through the Horizon 2020 programme, the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) and European Investment Bank (EIB) loans. Several national governments have also mobilised substantial resources to support the development of diagnostics, treatments and vaccines.

The fast-track €45 million call by IMI for “proposals on the development of therapeutics and diagnostics” to respond to the COVID-19 crisis is an example of the shortcomings and contradictions affecting most EU-funded grants, initiatives and missions in the realm of health. Compared to other initiatives, such as the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), the IMI call mentions no guarantee that affordability clauses will be in place to facilitate access to the eventual end product.

The Covid-19 pandemic requires a robust and all-encompassing public health response from the European Union and national governments that must focus on the implementation of effective epidemic control measures to slow down or halt the further spread of the virus in Europe and elsewhere. Simultaneously, there is a need for public financial and scientific support for the development of highly needed diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.

An effective response requires that all these necessary medical tools are free of charge at the point of delivery, particularly for vulnerable populations.

Given the high global demand, these healthcare technologies will need to be made available to patients and healthcare workers on an unprecedented scale. As delays will cost lives, this requires a thorough rethinking of how production of effective products can rapidly be upscaled to meet demand, and how potential financial barriers to accessing the tools in Europe and elsewhere can be removed. Given the public health urgency, we cannot allow a ‘business as usual’ approach in which market dynamics dictate price setting at the expense of rapid access, and where financial considerations rather than public health guide where and when products will be available.

The signatories of the letter strongly recommend that the EU institutions and national governments incorporate collective pro-public safeguards, such as transparency regarding public contributions, accessibility and affordability clauses and non-exclusive licences for exploitation of end-result products, in current and future funding calls and investments​. They ask the European Commission and national governments to uphold their commitment to transparency and good governance​, which is even more important during this crisis. The European Parliament must closely follow the results of the EU financial support to research and development and the eventual delivery of results, and national governments should promote and support the work of public research institutions in the fight against the pandemic.

Not only are these measures vital for tackling the challenges of dealing with this global pandemic, but they will set the precedent that it is high time for health needs to take priority over profit.