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The struggle for transparency in times of COVID-19

  • Date: Mon, Nov 2, 2020

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Given the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic and the unprecedented mobilisation of governments' resources, one could have imagined that the ‘business as usual’ way of dealing with the pharmaceutical industries would not be blindly followed.

This will be one of the topics explored at the annual UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School Laurence Crowley Lecture to be delivered by Yannis Natsis, Policy Manager for Universal Access and Affordable Medicines, European Public Health Alliance (EPHA). The lecture will take place virtually on November 4, 2020 at 1:00 pm.

“Transparency is not a ‘nice to have’ when it comes to handling the COVID-19 pandemic and in particular, governments' dealings with the pharmaceutical companies,” said Natsis, who is also a Management Board member of the European Medicines Agency (EMA). “It is fundamental for good governance, public accountability, patient safety and confidence in vaccines.”

“These are delicate issues with an impact that goes well beyond the coronavirus emergency. The lack of transparency undermines governments' leverage in the negotiations with the industries and most importantly, public trust in the management of the public health emergency,” he continued.

In his lecture, The struggle for transparency in times of COVID-19: Challenges for pharmaceutical advocacy in Europe, Natsis will explore how at the onset of the public health emergency, a glimmer of hope emerged for permanent positive change in the pharmaceutical business model, rather than confrontation with the sector.

Transparency seemed to be one of the most promising areas, especially given the positive signs to this end, in recent years in Europe. However, almost a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, these hopes have been somewhat dashed. We are now moving backwards.

“Governments across the globe understandably turn to pharmaceutical companies for help in mitigating the effects of the present pandemic,” said Natsis. “Nonetheless, the pressure and the need for speed cannot impede public scrutiny nor overlook the principles of good governance; especially when important public health and considerable amounts of public funds are at stake.”

“Overall, pharmaceutical industries are a highly secretive business sector. Working together with the industry should not mean that the latter gets to set the rules of the game due to the pressure for speedy solutions.”

During the event, Natsis will look at the watershed moments—the winners, losers and the prospects in the access to pharmaceutical policy discussions in Brussels and beyond.

“There needs to be a maximum degree of transparency in the negotiations and the contracts signed with the companies over COVID-19 therapeutics—be they treatments or vaccines.”

"The public, us, citizens, taxpayers—we de-risk the R&D process via guarantees of any industry losses. We are sharing the risk with the companies. We contribute to the boosting of the manufacturing-production capacity and we will pay for the eventual products,” Natsis continued.

“We need to remember that the current shroud of secrecy surrounding the ongoing negotiations and deals signed with pharma may fuel conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers and others.”

“Such a prospect would deal a blow to the safeguarding of public health. It is therefore crucial that these contracts are eventually published and that national parliaments, as well as the European Parliament, have some sort of reviewing-auditing competence even if it is retroactive.”

The 2020 UCD Smurfit School Laurence Crowley Lecture Series will take place at 1:00 pm on Wednesday, 4 November 2020. This event is free and open to the public. Register here.

This article first appeared in The Irish Times on Oct 28 2020.

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