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EU advisers want foresight group to spot future health crises

Commission told to bring in proactive approach and better coordination of R&D

The EU’s elite science and technology advisers have said the bloc needs a permanent, multidisciplinary advisory body to scan for approaching health threats akin to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies and the Group of Chief Scientific Advisers also want EU R&D to be more closely coordinated to identify urgent scientific questions and stave off as-yet-unseen disasters.

Both groups were assembled by the European Commission, and their work on pandemic preparedness was conducted along with Peter Piot, a special Covid-19 adviser to Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.

In a 100-page report released on 11 November, Piot and his colleagues say that their proposed team of health crisis advisers should draw on biomedical, behavioural, economic and ethical expertise, and work with equivalent national and global advisory groups.

The EU should also set up a public health “early-response mechanism”, offering member states a “toolbox of strategies” for activities such as mass testing and patient contact tracing.

But the EU should be proactive as well as responsive, Piot and his colleagues believe, and look at how environmental degradation, poverty and structural inequalities can cause and worsen health crises.

The advice of Piot and the two groups is fed directly to the Commission, and some of the recommendations in the report overlap with recently announced initiatives, such as the European Health Union, unveiled on 11 November. A 10-point Commission plan for how research can help combat Covid-19, pitched to EU countries in April, also included coordination for R&D funding and clinical trials.

“The advisers provide a detailed analysis of the many challenges we have been facing in the last months and give clear recommendations on how we can best move forward,” said European research commissioner, Mariya Gabriel, reacting to the report. But she did not say whether or not their suggestions would be acted upon.

The two advisory groups will keep working together into 2021 to produce another report on how the EU can develop its resilience to crises in general, the Commission said.