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The EU's ability to cope with cross-border health threats such as the 2011 E. coli outbreak should be improved by a draft law amended by the Public Health Committee on Wednesday. MEPs backed plans to provide EU-wide early warning of all such threats and inserted a provision enabling member states to club together to buy vaccines.

The European Commission proposal aims to build on lessons learned in recent crises, such as the outbreak of Escherichia coli bacteria infections in 2011, the volcanic ash cloud in 2010 or the influenza H1N1 pandemic in 2009.

"This legislative proposal, subject to the co-decision procedure, is a first. Unanimously requested by health ministers, it will enable us to fill a legislative gap. We shall thus extend the current coordination mechanism for transmissible diseases to all biological, chemical or environmental health threats" said rapporteur Gilles Pargneaux, whose text was approved with 52 votes in favour, none against and 6 abstentions.

An existing EU structure, the Early Warning and Response System (EWRS), set up in 1998 for communicable diseases, would be strengthened, and its scope extended to all cross-border threats to health, to allow for an EU-wide coordination and response. MEPs also included human zoonotic infections (which can be transmitted from animals to humans), and say that EU member states must also coordinate their communication campaigns in the event of a crisis.

The EWRS, hosted by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) aims to help to identify, during a health crisis, the nature of the threat, how it is spreading, how fast and widely.

European health emergency

The text would also introduce the possibility of recognising a European "health emergency" to accelerate the provision of medication needed to combat the crisis. Under existing legislation, the EU needs to wait for the World Health Organisation (WHO) to declare an international emergency across continents.

More equitable access to medicines

The new law would also allow member states to purchase medicines jointly, thus enabling more equitable access to vaccines at a better price.

Independence of experts

MEPs added a provision on the independence and the transparency that the experts involved in the system must display. "As was shown, for example, in 2009 by the case of Belgium, where five members of the 'Influenza' scientific committee presented symptoms of conflicts of interest when they recommended GlaxoSmithKline's anti-H1N1 vaccine to the Belgian government, I felt it essential, in view the conflicts of interest endemic in certain health agencies, to insist on the independence of experts", said the rapporteur.

EWRS experts would therefore have to declare the presence, or absence, of any direct or indirect interests which might be considered prejudicial to their independence.

Next steps

The draft legislation will be put to a plenary vote in November in Strasbourg.