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16th May 2022

Ombudsman highlights failings in EU virus-alert agency

  • Mural at the Stockholm-based European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control agency, which employs some 280 people and whose budget last year was just €60.5m (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

The European Ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly, has urged the EU agency in charge of preventing and monitoring viral infections to provide greater clarity about its work, after identifying "gaps" in both its transparency practices and effectiveness.

This inquiry, focused on the early stage of the pandemic crisis (January to April 2020), is part of a wider investigation into how EU initiations responded to the first coronavirus outbreak.

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  • 'The pandemic highlighted the gap between how the member states are supposed to work with the ECDC - and what happened in practice,' said Emily O'Reilly (Photo: European Parliament)

Two months before Europe was declared the epicentre of the pandemic, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) gave highly-positive assessments of the capacity of member states to cope with the crisis.

"Even if there are still many things unknown about [coronavirus], European countries have the necessary capacities to prevent and control an outbreak as soon as cases are detected," it reported on 25 January.

But this assumption quickly became both outdated and controversial.

Only a few weeks later, most member states revealed laboratory shortages - exposing the agency's limitations in dealing with a cross-border public health crisis.

The ECDC collects data provided by national authorities, but has no powers itself to gather information.

The agency explained back then that their January's risk assessment was based on the best evidence available at the time - arguing that the context had rapidly changed from "containment" to "mitigation".

However, O'Reilly concluded on Tuesday (9 February) that these mixed messages may have led to "confusion" from the public since this quickly-developing context was not explained properly.

"Much more should have been done to communicate with the general public to explain how and on what scientific evidence the ECDC made its assessments," she added.

New powers needed?

The ECDC was created in 2004, following the outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) which first emerged in China in 2002.

The European Commission warned at the time that "[a] major outbreak such as an influenza pandemic could have catastrophic consequences".

But, instead of creating a large European centre, they decided to set up a relatively small agency with limited resources, arguing that there were already national epidemiological centres.

Some 280 people work at the Stockholm-based agency, whose annual budget in 2020 was just €60.5m.

In comparison, the US equivalent, the American Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, had last year an annual budget of €6bn and 10,639 employees.

The EU ombudsman has warned that the agency cannot completely fulfil its mandate to prevent and control the next pandemic "without specific new powers" that ensure it receives timely and quality data from national authorities

"The pandemic highlighted the gap between how the member states are supposed to work with the ECDC - and what happened in practice," said O'Reilly in its decision, adding that delays in receiving data, as well as incomplete or incomparable data, undermined the agency's ability to coordinate "a robust EU response".

Last year, the commission proposed to reinforce the competences of ECDC with more human and financial resources. The proposal is currently being discussed at the European Council.

Meanwhile, the EU ombudsman slammed the agency's transparency practices, arguing that not all surveys and exchanges with international partners have been made public.

For example, most information related to the contact between the ECDC and its Chinese counterpart in the early days of the pandemic remains confidential.

"Transparency and accountability should be the bedrock of an institution that has a role in protecting public health," said O'Reilly.

"Crises not only require extraordinary responses from public administrations but also extraordinary efforts to maintain public trust," she added.

"As member states embark on vital vaccination programmes, this public trust is essential, and the ECDC will continue to play a central role gathering and publicising information on the vaccine rollout," O'Reilly also said.

Analysis

How the EU's virus-alert agency failed

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, an EU agency, was meant to highlight threats from infectious diseases, but painted a rosy picture of Covid-19.

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Five European lawmakers from the Greens lodged a lawsuit against the European Commission for not fully disclosing its Covid vaccine contracts with the pharmaceutical industry. The commission says it is in "the business of respecting contracts."

Ramaphosa slams EU for protecting vaccine profits

African leaders, after their two-day summit in Brussels, called an offer by the EU to help Africa build vaccine-manufacturing plants was incomplete without backing a vaccine patent-waiver proposal.

Opinion

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A basic lack of transparency around the EU's vaccines procurement negotiations has prevented effective public and parliamentary scrutiny. It has also made it impossible to answer some of the key questions we put forward here.

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