Citizens often turn to the European Parliament to ask what the European Union (EU) is doing to handle future epidemics of illnesses transmitted from animals to humans. Over the past decades, a number of diseases transmitted from animals to humans – known as zoonotic diseases – have resulted in various epidemics and pandemics. The coronavirus pandemic is the most notable, but previous examples include SARS, Ebola, avian influenza (‘bird flu’), and HIV/AIDS.
In the health policy area, the European Union’s role is limited to supporting and coordinating the policies of EU countries. Within these limited powers, the EU has taken action to reduce the risk of future epidemics, and to be better prepared to deal with large outbreaks.
Preventing future epidemics
One of the risk factors that can lead to diseases being transmitted from animals to humans is a sharp decline in biodiversity. The loss of habitat can force wild animals closer to livestock and inhabited areas, increasing the chance of infection. In addition, less biodiversity can sometimes lead to more animals carrying diseases that could potentially infect humans, or carrying parasites that could do so (known as vector species).
As a result, the EU has taken steps to protect biodiversity and prevent deforestation, in particular as part of the Green Deal. A core part of the Green Deal is the biodiversity strategy. Additionally, the farm to fork strategy for sustainable agriculture aims to lessen the chances of another epidemic by promoting genetic diversity on farms.
The European Parliament welcomed these efforts in an October 2021 resolution. It also explicitly recognised the link between biodiversity loss and the spread of disease in another resolution on protecting biodiversity in October 2021. In this resolution, Parliament called for the EU to address the root cause of biodiversity loss. It also called on the European Commission to submit a proposal to ensure that EU consumption does not lead to deforestation, and to promote a diversity in agricultural crops and seeds.
Some diseases can be transferred from livestock to humans through the contamination of food. As a result, the EU is taking action to combat disease in livestock and to reduce the risk of contamination. This includes routinely vaccinating farm animals and reducing the use of antibiotics.
Improving epidemic preparedness
Through the Horizon 2020 programme, the EU has invested heavily in research on infectious diseases. In particular, it has invested in developing vaccines, including novel technologies such as mRNA vaccines, which have been instrumental in combatting coronavirus.
The European Parliament calls for greater cooperation between EU countries on healthcare. Most notably, in a July 2020 resolution, Parliament demanded the establishment of a European Health Union, to promote cooperation in healthcare, by sharing information and supplies, and by improving coordination.
In response to the Parliament’s demands, as well as to the coronavirus pandemic, the European Commission established the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA) to:
- detect and evaluate health threats
- promote research into safe, effective, and affordable medical countermeasures
- procure, stockpile, and distribute medical supplies
- share knowledge and best practices
- coordinate EU countries and other stakeholders during (potential) health crises
- contribute to global preparedness to epidemics, for example through training, sharing knowledge, and improving the supply chains for medical equipment and medicine
The aim is that HERA will be fully operational by early 2022.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) also plays an important role in monitoring the spread of disease, providing important data and advice, and promoting the sharing of knowledge and best practices.
- The link between biodiversity loss and the spread of zoonotic diseases, European Parliament Policy Department for Economic, Scientific and Quality of Life Policies, December 2020
- Foodborne zoonotic diseases, European Food Safety Authority, 2021
- Eradication, control and monitoring programmes to contain animal diseases, European Court of Auditors special report, 2016
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