Green Talking Heads

Healthcare as a common good
#08

Petra de Sutter

Deputy Prime Minister of Belgium and Former Green MEP

10January
2022
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Healthcare as a common good

In this episode, Sarah Diedro is in conversation with the Deputy Prime minister of Belgium Petra de Sutter, former Green MEP who is also a health professional, and a person of reference on health issues within the Green family. They assess how the European Union and national governments have managed the pandemic thus far and discuss the key role of accessible vaccines to ensure a pandemic recovery for all.

Evaluating Belgium and the European Union’s COVID-19 response 

The COVID-19 pandemic has been ongoing now for more than a year and a half. During this time, Petra de Sutter main concern has been investing in health care and building resilience to prevent and tackle current and future health crisis. She also tackles how to treat the COVID-19 pandemic with global solutions, as it will not end as long as life-saving vaccines are not made accessible to everyone.  

The privatisation and commercialisation of healthcare has obstructed a fast and coordinated response the crisis. That’s why the Belgian government have now heavily reinvested in healthcare, and the future of the health workforce. De Sutter underlines the need for a global approach to the pandemic, stating that the current vaccine policy has been successful in the EU and the Global North but ‘has failed’ in terms of its global approach. This is not only a practical but also an ethical issue.  

According to de Sutter, the main lessons learned since the beginning of the pandemic are that:

  • We need to treat the health sector as a common good, as it will always be the public sector that needs to solve things when there are serious crises.
  • Mental health issues were made evident and exacerbated during the pandemic, and it is very important to invest more in the mental health sector.
  • Child abuse and partner violence was also exacerbated during the pandemic, and this must taken seriously.
  • Zoonosis (any disease or infection that is naturally transmissible from vertebrate animals to humans)  such as Ebola, SARS, HIV, Lyme disease, and COVID-19 pandemic show that we have lost the link between environment and health.
  • One Health Approach: all policies must take health into consideration and protecting the wellbeing and health of people.
  • We need to strengthen coordination and invest in public health systems throughout Europe, because the weakest system within the union weakens the whole of the European Union.
  • We need a global perspective on our vaccine programme, because we are only protected if everybody is protected.

Although the European Union (EU) has helped to develop vaccines and organised advanced purchase agreements with pharmaceutical companies, De Sutter acknowledges that it is important to be critical of the secret agreements that were made. “We probably gave a lot to the first pharmaceutical companies without asking a lot back,” she states. Indeed, the pharmaceutical industry can’t be considered as any other industry operating under a free market, since it functions differently than other industries. Rather than be driven by the supply and demand market, it should be regulated to ensure that not only the most profitable drugs are being produced.

On vaccine strategy and coordination, the EU has announced the launch of the European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA). De Sutter highlights that:  

“For healthcare systems, even if they’re organized and financed in different ways, they should be made more resilient for crisis that cross borders because the virus doesn’t respect borders. (…) We need an EU to act as a forum for cooperation, setting standards, and as a multiplier for national efforts.” 

Even national healthcare systems are organized and financed differently, and they all need to be resilient for cross-border health crises. Now, we have the momentum to set up more health coordination within the European Union member states.  

Vaccine solidarity: Why we need the TRIPS Waiver 

Due to existing inequalities, COVID-19 has a more devastating impact on the Global South and particularly already marginalized groups. The global inequality of vaccine distribution is an ethical problem as well as a major obstacle to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. De Sutter expressed disappointment that the EU Commission and national governments did not make clear conditions regarding affordability and accessibility for vaccines in their deals with pharmaceutical companies, as was requested by the European Parliament. Global solidarity is needed to coordinate the sharing of life-saving medical supplies such as ventilators and vaccines.  

Indeed, since the pharmaceutical research is funded be the public, it would make sense that the results of this research would be accessible for all. Donation commitments as coordinated by COVAX (providing doses for at least 20% of countries’ populations) can be part of the solution, but such commitments have been well below what is needed to tackle the pandemic, and even existing ones are seldom fulfilled once another wave of the pandemic is made evident. “Now we’re talking about a third shot of the vaccine, whereas the majority of people in the world didn’t even have a first shot,” Petra de Sutter states.  

De Sutter explains that we need a more structural solution so that the production of vaccines can take place in the Global South. And that’s exactly what the TRIPS Waiver, proposed in October 2020, by India and South Africa to the World Trade Organization (WTO), would achieve. It consists of a “temporary waiver from certain provisions of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement) in relation to COVID-19 medical products (revised 21 May, 2021).” In effect, it would temporarily waive COVID-19 vaccine patents, allowing low-income countries to produce their own vaccines.

The delinkage model, which rethinks the patent model and the business model of the pharmaceutical industry to expand access, improve outcomes, and reduce costs, could also offer a solution. This would allow for the (1) differentiation between research and development and the production of the drug/product, the (2) decoupling of research and development costs from the market price of the product. This would not only be useful when taking humanitarian decisions that impact in global south, but also for decision-making regarding other life-saving drugs in western countries. 

We know that as long as the world’s population is not vaccinated, we will see new variants, so it is critical to tackle the pandemic together! 

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