Whether medicines, equipment or instruments, the call for greater European independence from international markets is encountering obstacles in the real world.

UM – 08/2020

The coronavirus crisis has shown the extent of vulnerability of the old continent

During its EU Council Presidency, the Federal Republic of Germany has spoken out in favour of strengthening European sovereignty in the supply of medicines, medical devices, equipment and medical instruments. In recent months, there has been much talk of the European Union (EU) becoming strategically independent in relation to important supplies.

Export bans are being circumvented

Mikuláš Peksa (Greens/European Free Alliance), MEP from the Czech Republic, also welcomes the EU campaign for joint procurement of test kits and ventilators amid the COVID-19 pandemic and has spoken out in favour of the ban on exports of medical devices to non-EU countries. The latter, however, is at risk of failing as important technical components such as pressure gauges, sensors or valves, which are not deemed medical devices, can be exported. Back in April, in a question addressed to the current Health Commissioner, he wanted to know how the Commission intends to protect the vital production of ventilators.

The devil's in the details

Peksa’s question demonstrates that the devil's often in the details. This is because the current legislation on medical devices does not allow components to be labelled as medical devices unless they also have a medical purpose in their own right. In her reply of 31 July, Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides had to point out that the supply chains for medical devices are often global. Depending on the components required and the manufacturing process, several intermediate steps would often be necessary, which could extend across different Member States, but also across non-EU countries. 

A greater understanding of Europe's needs is expected from manufacturers

Nevertheless, a clearing house had been set up to provide an overview of supply and demand for medical equipment at EU level. It monitors the market situation and helps facilitate the dialogue between manufacturers and potential suppliers of components. In the case of ventilators, it monitors bottlenecks and conducts an organised dialogue with the medical industry associations. ‘A deeper understanding’ is also relied upon on the supply side.

Many questions remain unresolved

Kyriakides also referred to the proposed EU4Health programme which will enable the EU to stock up on strategically important medicines and medical equipment. But even in this case, it will be necessary to decide which goods are of strategic interest and how much money can be spent on them. The more specific the questions become, the more difficult it becomes to find answers.