European UnionSpeeches

Ursula von der Leyen – 2022 Speech at the Grand Challenges Annual Meeting

The speech made by Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, on 24 October 2022.

Dear Prime Minister De Croo,

Dear Bill Gates,

Distinguished guests,

It is so good to see you again Bill, because the last time we met was just a month ago in New York at the Global Goalkeepers event. I was very moved by your foundation’s recognition of Europe’s leadership on global health and the fight against the COVID-19. The award is truly a collective one. It belongs to all Europeans who showed such dedication during the pandemic – from the frontline workers in our hospitals and essential services, to the scientists who developed the life-saving vaccines.

Today, we are joined by many of you here, from around the world, who are committed to global health and equity. So I would like to use this occasion to reflect on the experience of the pandemic, not from a medical point of view but from the point of view of a policymaker. And I would like to give a sober assessment of what I think went well and where we need to do better in future. I have six lessons that we took.

The first lesson, not surprisingly, is the utmost importance of solidarity and cooperation. Let me start with the European experience. When the COVID-19 virus made landfall in Europe, things got really tough at the beginning. Some Member States chose to close their borders for life-saving material and equipment. There was painful competition for protective equipment, ventilators and other medical supplies between the different Member States. Vaccine nationalism became the norm around the world. I can tell you – we Europeans had our tough and painful public discussions. But at a certain point, the European Union decided to take a different path – the path of solidarity and openness. We convinced Member States not to close their borders but to share equipment and personnel. We decided to buy vaccines together and not to compete with each other. We started the vaccination campaign on the exact same day in all our 27 Member States – yes, we started with low numbers, and that was heavily criticised, but we had a fair distribution. Regardless whether you are a larger Member State or a small one, a wealthy one or a not so wealthy one. We decided not to close our borders for vaccine exports but to introduce a transparency mechanism. And at this point, many, many thanks to you Prime Minister, dear Alexander De Croo. You have been insisting on staying open for exports because you knew how important that is for the trust of the pharmaceutical industry, depending on where they are located. Today, over 80% of the European Union’s adult population is fully vaccinated. While at the same time, we have exported two-thirds of the vaccines produced in Europe to the rest of the world. Solidarity and openness were the absolute pre-conditions to this success.

My second lesson: Science does not exist in a vacuum. I believe it was no coincidence that the safest and most effective vaccines were developed and rolled out rapidly in open societies. Science depends on cooperation, it depends on education, on the protection of intellectual property rights, of course on proper data sharing. But it also depends on individual mobility for example, freedom to move, and of course on the regulatory environment and on translating results into products, services and policies. All these factors empower scientists to do their best work, and enable society to reap the benefits. My colleagues and I benefited enormously from the collective wisdom of scientific advice – from you, Professor Peter Piot, you were my personal COVID-19 advisor, the way you gave me guidance and advise on a daily basis was outstanding; from my group of COVID-19 science advisors, handpicked by you, Peter; and also from the platform of 27 Member State government advisors we created. So it is transparency and accountability, our freedom of speech and the freedom of science that enable good policymaking and innovation. These are the values that democratic societies depend on and nurture. So it was democracies that developed the life-saving effective vaccines and that were best able to support their citizens when they needed our help the most.

My third lesson is about the miracle of vaccines themselves. As a medical doctor by training, the importance of research and development is not news to me. But the pandemic made it very real for all of us. As you know, the outstanding mRNA vaccines did not come out of the blue. Their discovery, like all innovation, relies on long-term investment in scientists and their research. In fact, the European Commission had been investing in mRNA vaccine research since the early 2010s. However, in Europe we did not have a BARDA, like in the United States, which prepares for the case of an emergency. I must say, this was an obvious disadvantage. So we learnt it the rough way. And during the pandemic, we created HERA to anticipate threats and potential health crises. HERA works closely with our Horizon Europe research programme to close the circle from blue sky discovery all the way to scaling up life-saving measures.

Global cooperation in research and development is crucial for discovery. That is why, for example, HERA and CEPI – the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations – have recently signed a letter of intent. They will cooperate on developing next generation vaccines, including for COVID-19, as part of our Vaccines 2.0 Strategy. Horizon Europe is providing on a yearly basis contributions of EUR 35 million. And I am very pleased that our clinical trials partnership for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria between European and developing countries has recently agreed to co-run calls for proposals with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Which takes me to lesson four: manufacturing capacity. Having safe and effective vaccines is not enough – we all know that. We badly needed manufacturing capacity, as well as open supply chains. I vividly remember that, at the height of the pandemic, we saw shortages of all kinds across the whole vaccine value chain, from bioreactor bags to vials, from lipids to even syringes. So we set up a Task Force to work with industry, with global partners, to remove these bottlenecks. This helped ramp up the monthly production capacity in the European Union, from 20 million vaccine doses per month at the beginning of 2021 to around 300 million vaccine doses per month by the second half of the year. Having learnt this lesson, we have now set up the EU-FAB, which is an ever-warm network of production capacities to quickly ramp up vaccines production in the future.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

So far Europe has sent more than 2.5 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses to 168 countries worldwide. This is our fifth lesson: cooperation and solidarity must be global. At the start of the pandemic, there was no appropriate global framework to allow for fair sharing of vaccines and other medical countermeasures. So we helped set up the ACT-Accelerator and COVAX, which we financed with EUR 3 billion, and we donated half a billion vaccine doses to lower-income countries. But clearly, this was not a sufficient approach, more had to be done and more can be done. This is why we took a different approach now. We are supporting developing countries directly: through financing, through regulatory capacity-building, and technology transfer, to build up their own vaccine manufacturing capacity. We are working with Senegal, Rwanda, South Africa and Ghana to produce mRNA vaccines that are made in Africa, for Africans. And we are taking a similar approach now with Latin America. They have been asking us to do the same. And of course, we responded positively. Because this is the way to go. Regional resilience is the solution that builds global health resilience.

The sixth and final lesson concerns, indeed, the global health system. Over the years, global health has been consistently underfunded and neglected. Not by the likes of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is doing exemplary work, but by the governments. The key is to be prepared, and this means keeping up the investment and keeping the focus in global health, at all times. Even now, in these difficult times, with a completely different focus. I am glad that we finally agreed to create a Pandemic Preparedness and Response Fund. The European Commission, together with the United States, have each committed USD 450 million. And this is just the start. With this reinforced funding, we will step up globally the surveillance of cross-border health threats, the strengthening of health systems, and most importantly the support in training and education.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I know we still have a long way to go, but thanks to all of you and your dedication to global health and equity, I believe we are on the right track. Next month, the European Commission will bring forward the EU Global Health Strategy – it is our proposal to the world on how to work better together in partnership, to advance the common goal of global health. And of course, it will draw on the lessons I have just outlined to you. I look forward to continuing our close work together. And I wish you a rewarding and thoughtful conference.