[Check Against Delivery]
EU Commissioner for international cooperation, humanitarian aid and crisis response
The EU’s response to the Ebola crisis
Strasbourg, 17 September 2014
Thank you for putting this very important issue on this week’s plenary agenda. It is timely. Because of the dramatic deterioration of the situation on the ground. Because we are now seeing a real step-change in the international response. And because just this Monday, we had a ministerial meeting in Brussels, hosted by the Commission, to take stock of the EU’s response to date and see what more we need to do.
Let me make four points.
1. This outbreak is quite unlike any Ebola outbreak we have ever seen before. The outbreak has not been contained. In the most affected countries – Guinea Liberia and Sierra Leone – it is spreading in densely populated urban centres as well as in the remote countryside. It is spreading at an exponential rate. As of yesterday, there were (according to WHO) 4963 cases and 2453 deaths. According to the UN’s Senior Coordinator for the fight against Ebola, David Nabarro, we are seeing a near-doubling in the number of cases every three weeks. With determined action now, we will be able to curb the spread of the disease. But if we do not, there is a risk that the virus will mutate. And there is a risk that it will travel to other parts of Africa, and to other continents. There is no imminent threat to Europe itself – but particularly if the virus mutates, that may not hold in the future.
So what is needed for an effective response? We actually know what we need. The UN is now putting in place an effective coordination structure, based on operational platforms. And with a single overall coordinator in the person of Dr David Nabarro. Yesterday, the UN released its revised funding requirements for the immediate response – which come to almost US$ 1 bn. But the fight against Ebola is not just about funding. This is not a classic humanitarian emergency where large numbers of dedicated humanitarian workers are available to be deployed at short notice. Working in the front line against Ebola requires special skills and the ability to deploy in a uniquely challenging environment. I want to pay tribute here to Medecins Sans Frontieres who have been doing just that since the start of the crisis. But even they are now stretched way beyond their capacity. What is needed now is personnel, equipment, and transport. That takes me to my second point.
2. The Ebola outbreak should be of concern to us not only because of its immediate public health impact. The fall-out from this crisis could be much wider. We are already seeing reductions in growth rates in the region – which had been recovering remarkably well after the terrible civil wars of the 1990s and early 2000s. And beyond the public health impact, there are potential implications for public order – and for political stability. The consequences of renewed political instability for these countries and their ability to control the virus are too appalling to contemplate. All the more so when the region is adjacent to a long belt of countries troubled by recurrent crises and extremism – and with Boko Haram not far away. So we need more than ever to reach out to the affected countries. To isolate the virus – not the region.
3. What is Europe doing – and what more should we do? First, on funding. We were the first to put in significant amounts of humanitarian funding. € 11.9 m in total (and much of this redirected from development funds). And with a very substantial effort on the development side, total EU funding for the crisis now stands at almost € 150 m – including funding to strengthen local healthcare capacity in the region; budget support to help cushion the severe macroeconomic impact of the crisis; and support to the deployment of an African Union medical mission to West Africa. We have also deployed, with EU funding, three mobile laboratories to help in testing and identifying the virus.
In addition, EU Member States are coming forward with generous funding. At the ministerial meeting on Monday which I co-chaired with Andris Piebalgs and Tonio Borg, we heard from 12 Member States who have already mobilized funding for the response or are making new funding available – amounting to a total of up to € 78 m. Some of these pledges will be formalized in the coming days, but that is a very generous response.
While funding is crucial, it is not enough. So the second pillar of what we need to do is in-kind response. At the meeting on Monday, we heard from the UK about their decision to establish an Ebola treatment centre in Freetown. And from France about its sending of medical personnel and equipment, as well as the important role played by the Pasteur Institute in detection and tracing. Austria is sending significant amounts of equipment. One Member State may help with an air bridge. Another Member State is looking at sending a base camp, and several more Member States are currently looking at sending equipment. We will facilitate as much as possible of this through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, to help with transport and with matching needs and offers.
From the European Commission itself, we are putting an ECHO health expert in each of three most affected countries. And a European expert is being placed in the UN’s UNDAC assessment team for the region. In Brussels, the Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) inaugurated last year is operating as an information hub and has hosted numerous intra-EU coordination meetings since the crisis broke this spring.
And we have to recognize the tremendous effort being mobilized by other countries and regions – I very much welcome the latest surge in US assistance announced by President Obama. As well as the efforts of the African Union, Cuba, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Australia – all of whom have sent teams or are intending to send teams.
But on top of helping the response in the region, we need to have systems in place to enable those responding on the spot to move in and out of the region. We are already engaging through the EU Delegations with governments in the region to encourage them to keep open ports, airports and logistics hubs. The governments of Senegal and Ghana have been particularly helpful in this regard. But we also need to have in place reliable systems of medical evacuation for medical and humanitarian workers in the region. There was strong support at Monday’s meeting for a European coordination system for medical evacuation, and the Commission’s services are now working flat-out on this.
Finally, the EU can help with research on Ebola. I know the ENVI Committee already had an exchange on this with Tonio Borg in early September. The Commission will rapidly mobilize funding from Horizon 2020 via an emergency procedure – € 7 m in the first stage to support clinical trials on vaccines and therapies. And we are coordinating on this with other global research funders. In addition, we are already supporting research on Ebola under the 7th Framework Programme for Research and Development – on developing antiviral drugs; on linking up high-security labs; and on clinical management of patients.
4. This takes me to my final part of my intervention. What are we doing to protect the public in Europe? Let me stress that Ebola poses very little risk to EU citizens because of the mode of transmission and because we have very good healthcare systems. However, we need to remain alert. With Member States in the Health Security Committee, and with the European Centre for Disease Prevention Control (ECDC), we are working hard to strengthen preparedness in Europe – making sure notably
– that our laboratory system is ready to carry out testing, and that all Member States have access to high-safety laboratories;
– that Member States have suitable treatment facilities and trained staff;
– that we coordinate our prevention messages to the public and to travellers; and
– that we encourage new treatments to be developed and made available as soon as possible.
In short, and to conclude, this exceptional crisis requires an exceptional response. For our part, we are stepping up, together with EU Member States. And we count on the Parliament’s support.