DAVOS 2021: EU president unveils plans to spot and tackle future pandemics

Tom Belger
·Finance and policy reporter
·3 min read
German Klaus Schwab, left, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, WEF, listens to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, displayed on a video screen, during a conference at the Davos Agenda in Cologny near Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. The Davos Agenda from Jan. 25 to Jan. 29, 2021 is an online edition due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)
Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum. Photo: Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP.

The EU has unveiled new preparations for future pandemics, proposing a public-private scheme to spot potential diseases and manufacture vaccines at scale.

European Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen announced plans for a “bio-defence preparedness programme,” part of a new European Health Emergency Response Authority, in a speech on Tuesday.

Addressing the virtual Davos Agenda 2021 summit of global leaders, she warned: “We know that preparedness is everything. And we know that in a pandemic there is no time to lose.

“We need this new public-private approach to detect earlier, develop together and manufacture faster at scale. This is not just true for pandemics or health. It is true for all major societal challenges.”

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She said the partnership would bring together private sector capability and innovation with the “long-term vision and predictable funding” of the public sector.

“It would bring together cutting-edge tech-companies, blue-chip manufacturers, as well as regulators,” said the former German government minister.

There is frustration in Europe at the slow pace of vaccine rollouts, with an EU commissioner hitting out at AstraZeneca on Monday for saying supplies would be lower than agreed. The EU has imposed new export rules on vaccines produced in the bloc.

‘Paris-style agreement’ needed on biodiversity

In a wide-ranging speech, she also called for a “Paris-style agreement for biodiversity.”

Von der Leyen said the loss of forests not only threatened natural habits for species, it also meant the loss of a “key ally in our fight against climate change,” and increased the risk of future pandemics.

She highlighted the story of a family who died in Guinea from ebola spread by bats, which had been pushed towards their village as most forests in the region had been destroyed.

“To those who prefer the business case, here it is—more than half of global GDP is dependent on high- functioning biodiversity and ecosystem services, from food to tourism,” she added.

Taking on the ‘immense power’ of big tech

Von der Leyen also took aim at global tech companies in the speech, defending European efforts to “contain this immense power.”

Online platforms’ business models had an impact not only on free and fair competition, but “our democracies, our security and our quality of information.”

“We can’t accept decisions that have far-reaching impact on our democracy are taken by computer programme,” she said.

“We want it clearly laid down that internet companies take responsibility for the manner in which they disseminate, promote and remove content.”

READ MORE: UK economy hangs in balance as EU tensions grow over vaccines

She called on the US to join the EU in creating a “digital economy rulebook” valid worldwide, ranging from data protection and privacy to the security of key infrastructure.

Twitter’s decision to switch off former president Donald Trump’s account may have been “tempting,” but she added: “Such serious interference with freedom of expression should not be based on company rules alone. There needs to be a framework of laws for such far-reaching decisions.”

Watch: Davos Agenda: New opportunities in a world post-pandemic