The coronavirus has highlighted the need for active cooperation between medical researchers and doctors in the field. How has Europe’s health care system responded?
We have to realise that COVID-19 is a new disease related to a new virus, and everything that we know about this pathogen – and the disease caused by this pathogen – has been gathered during the last months by clinicians who are overworked and at risk of being infected, and by the medical researchers who were assisting them.
How has the European health care system responded? European university teaching hospitals, medical research institutes across Europe have been involved in virus research, focusing on COVID-19 as a disease and the virus as a pathogen. Some research had even started before this pathogen became so unfortunately famous. Also the funding schemes, so the whole machinery behind the research – and the financing machinery to which the EIB belongs – has responded immediately.
The fact that there are novel drugs in clinical trials as well as epidemiological data incorporated into models predicting disease spread are the results of the hard work done by clinicians and researchers across the globe, including Europe.
I think we all see now how important research is in coming up with solutions to address pandemics such as COVID-19. Long-term and sustainable solutions to pandemics, like the one currently faced by all of us, can be provided through intensive medical research.
I think I do not have to use the argument that an American activist, Mary Lasker, used when she was appealing for funds for the National Institute of Health from United States senators. She said, “if you think, senators, that medical research is expensive, try disease.” I don’t have to use this because we are experiencing in a tragic way how expensive disease can be in situations that shut down the economy in order to control the disease.
What has the European system done well, under enormous pressure, and what has it done less well?
We have discovered that we have fantastic researchers and clinicians who, despite being overworked and being at risk, have been making tremendous efforts to gather knowledge about the disease and to share it with us. The second thing that has worked well is that the whole machinery of funding research has immediately – including the EIB – switched to financing activities focused on COVID-19 and the pathogen, SARS-CoV-2 virus.
What hasn’t gone well? Europe was not ready for this pandemic. Nobody was, basically. Investments into pandemic preparedness were underestimated and pushed back until later. Large infrastructure projects, such as the digitalisation of the health sector, the stockpiling of essential goods, and a sufficient number of skilled workers, have not been realised.
Digitalisation has provided a clear advantage in handling this pandemic. Tools like interoperable, digital electronic health records, cross-border systematic exchange of information, treatment protocols and so on provided a big gain in time and potentially contributed to lower death rates [in some countries.] What I personally feel is a pity is the fact that this digital technology has been available, but there was no will, no funds, no time to deploy it in the field.
In the future, the EIB should ensure that through our projects we contribute properly to the pandemic preparedness of our promoters, including the digitalisation of the health sector. We want to support our promoters in the best possible way.
It’s interesting that you say that because the EIB has been financing, most recently in Poland and Ireland, medical campuses that combine medical practitioners and researchers. Would that help with the kind of information exchange you are talking about?
Medical research is very expensive, and the health sector is a very fragile and complex construct. Many people are thinking about how to organise these complex systems to get optimal results. The EIB has been strongly supporting the co-location of medical research laboratories, university teaching hospitals, and, let’s not forget, some incubators to help translate research from [researchers’] bench to [patients’] beds, in other words, to the economy and to patients finally.
How does the EIB help in all of this? What can we provide that other lenders or international organisations may not be able to provide?
What is the role of the EIB in this medical research ecosystem? I will answer using the words of the Hungarian scientist Albert Szent-Györgyi, the man who discovered vitamin C. Albert Szent-Györgyi said, “Research is four things: brains with which to think; eyes with which to see; machines with which to measure; and fourth, money” to purchase them.
How can the EIB help? The EIB firstly has means. Secondly, I think the EIB as long-term finance institution is well-positioned to finance medical research, which is long-term and very costly. The EIB has the huge resources needed to match this.
Furthermore, financing medical research is not simple. On the contrary, it is a very complex task. It’s not enough to have money. You also have to know how to invest this money so it’s not wasted – so it is used in an optimal way. And what the EIB has is the skills to do this. We have decades of experience in financing medical research.
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