Saturday

4th Feb 2023

Opinion

Covid-19 pandemic - why was the ECDC so ineffective?

  • As Covid-19 took hold across Europe, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control was unable to coordinate a united response, because its powers were too limited (Photo: Wikimedia)

The Covid-19 crisis has revealed that the current European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) has neither the funding, the staff or – perhaps most importantly – the authority to lead an effective response to a pandemic in Europe.

As Covid-19 took hold across Europe, the Stockholm-based ECDC was unable to coordinate a united response, crucial to combat the pandemic. Health is a core responsibility of member states, and the ECDC's powers were too limited to make an effective response and impact.

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Although the ECDC can and did provide recommendations to EU countries based on its monitoring and risk assessment activities, the organisation does not currently have the power or resources to implement public health measures.

In statement published recently, on the reinforcement of the mandate of the ECDC, and a new EU regulation on serious cross-border health threats, the Federation of European Academies of Medicien (FEAM) and its member academies welcomed the commission's decision to extend the mandate of ECDC and established a list of recommendations to that end.

A stronger, better-funded ECDC with both resources and the authority to lead a united European response to any public health crisis in the future is sorely needed.

The coronavirus did not respect member state borders, nor will any future pandemic infectious disease.

A coordinated, coherent framework must be developed now so that there is a clear and rapid response in the future. There is little doubt that more lives would have been saved if a framework with a stronger, better-resourced ECDC with more authority, had already been in place in February 2020.

The new mandate for the ECDC must focus solely on communicable diseases and this should include surveillance and response.

At present, there is a debate as to whether the scope of the ECDC should be widened. FEAM and its member academies strongly believe that it is better to have a competent, efficient, focused and effective ECDC that has clear expertise in infectious diseases rather than "spreading the ECDC too thinly" and risking another future failed pandemic response.

Focusing its attention on communicable diseases will allow the ECDC to display confident, informed leadership and guidance in times of crisis.

As the Covid-19 expanded across Europe, countries scrambled to respond, and attempted to gather data according to their own individual national rules.

Scramble for data

Trying to compare the situation across European countries was not globally coordinated. It presented an additional challenge for civil servants who were looking to other countries for 'best practices' and to the plans for the eventual opening up countries in a coherent way.

As it stands at present, the ECDC has no authority to enforce standards in how data should be reported, nor regarding assistance and the source of surveillance and data reporting within member states.

The extension of the mandate of the ECDC is an opportunity to revise this situation, so that the ECDC becomes an important communicable disease data hub for EU states.

The ECDC could collect uniform data from various member states (while ensuring that citizens' privacy is upheld under GDPR), and issue informed guidelines based on these data. It could form a network through which countries could quickly and easily share health information, making responses to unexpected disasters swift and effective. It could also represent a connection point for liaison with other important international bodies, such as the World Health Organization (WHO).

The current pandemic also highlighted the importance of the integration of the 'One Health' approach to all future reforms of ECDC.

Covid-19 is very likely a zoonotic infection which crossed over to humans from animal hosts. The inclusion of veterinary data on evolving infections should be a crucial part in any future data exchange programme facilitated by the ECDC.

In conclusion, FEAM and its member academies call for a stronger and competent ECDC to be built, with a continued focus on communicable diseases and substantially greater powers.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that the lack of a coordinated EU response causes delay in response. Viruses and other diseases do not respect borders – therefore, a united effort will reap more rewards against future public health threats.

Within the context of the European Health Union, the new ECDC could provide the much-needed central hub of information collection and flow between member states, national organisations, and international bodies such as the WHO.

It will drive the improvement of laboratory capabilities across member states, it will harmonise and organise data collection regarding various infectious diseases, it will carry out not only risk assessment but also risk management, and it will incorporate a One Health philosophy, engaging with animal as well as human health experts.

I look forward to seeing the results of the final extension of the ECDC's mandate, and urge European policymakers to strengthen both the powers and the resources provided to the ECDC, so that the events of February 2020 will not be repeated.

Author bio

Professor George Griffin is vice-president of the Federation of European Academies of Medicine.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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