150 public health experts and prominent health policy makers meet to bring the European Health Union vision closer

A round up of the final conference for SHARP Joint Action.

SHARP Joint Action partners and representatives from key European stakeholder organisations for health security convened in Helsinki on 19 and 20 June 2023 for two days of lively discussions on health security and the value of collaboration. Over two days, presentations on the results of the work completed by joint action partners prompted expert panel discussions on how to take forward the practical outcomes.

The conference aimed to disseminate the results from the joint action workstreams and to crystalise how several priority deliverables – tools; research papers and proposals – might contribute to the EU Initiative on Health Security and help countries to meet the demands of the new regulation on serious cross-border threats to health.

The Joint Action started its work in 2019, and the participating institutions were soon burdened with responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in their countries. The final conference – organised by the coordinator of SHARP JOINT ACTION, the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare – gave preparedness specialists from across EU public health institutes a rare and much-appreciated chance to get together face-to-face.

You can watch all Final Conference presentations and key note speeches on this playlist.

Deeply embedded in the vision for a European Health Union

Speakers from the European Commission and the ECDC emphasized SHARP’s relevance in the framework of the new European health security infrastructure and EU legislation.

Stefan Schreck, adviser for stakeholder relations in the Public Health Directorate of DG SANTE, which supervises the project with HaDEA, highlighted how SHARP JOINT ACTION builds on previous joint actions, such as the Joint Action EMERGE network of diagnostic laboratories specialising in high threat pathogens. He also expressed DG SANTE’s gratitude for the work that SHARP has done during tough times to improve member states’ ability to implement Decision 1082/2013 on serious cross-border threats to health and the International Health Regulations (IHR). He concluded with a brief overview of future EU steps for preparedness and response, such as involvement in WHO-led negotiations on amendments to the IHR.
Watch Schreck’s remarks in full on the video below.

In her opening words, Andrea Ammon, the Director of ECDC, recognised the role of SHARP JOINT ACTION in the steps taken towards a safer Europe. According to Ammon, outputs from the joint action will be useful to the ECDC under its new extended mandate in preparedness, IHR capacities, laboratories and training. She also expressed her agency’s commitment to continue working with SHARP partners as the results of the project are translated into practice on a regional, national and European level.

“The pandemic made clear that serious threats to health from infectious diseases are inherently cross-border, which underlies the importance of cooperation and coordination with partners, not only at the national level but also between countries in the EU and at global level,”

Andrea Ammon, Director of ECDC.

Watch Ammon’s opening words in full on the video.

COVID-19 burdened participating institutions; but drew focus to SHARP’s core themes

Several speakers highlighted the effect of the pandemic on the work of the joint action. The burden of the pandemic management was evident, but the exceptional situation also catalysed preparedness improvements within member states.

Practical management of the pandemic has had a positive effect on IHR core capacities in focus countries. Led by the Public Health Agency of Sweden (FOHM) in cooperation with the Norwegian Directorate of Health (HD), IHR core capacity strengthening work throughout the Joint Action provided valuable support by prompting focus countries to re-assess and revisit preparedness challenges. Regular workshops facilitated knowledge and practice exchange opportunities that were highly rated by participants.

Watch the IHR core capacity strengthening and assessment presentation:

The pandemic underlined the importance of operational inter-sectoral preparedness and response planning for all hazards

National Institute of Public Health and the Environment (RIVM, Netherlands) adopted a consensus process to determine which sectors should be involved in public health emergency preparedness and response, and what aspects national preparedness plans should consider – from communications plans to secure information sharing.

Learn more and watch the entire presentation:

Enhanced European-wide cooperation and building relationships

SHARP Joint Action members applaud the working relationships and cooperation formed over the years. Cooperation is an overarching theme that underpins the work done across the Joint Action.

Collaboration and exchange of working practices is central to the work led by Institute of Public Health of Serbia, “Dr Milan Jovanovic Batut” and co-led by the Robert Koch Institute. This concentrates on strengthening IHR implementation through cross-sectoral trainings. To achieve this, they have conducted several online and onsite training opportunities including table-top exercises, workshops, and laboratory trainings. A free access, online platform now hosts the training materials for use by others and is available in 18 languages.

Hear work package 8 talk more about their work:

Outi Kuivasniemi, Deputy Director for International Affairs, from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health of Finland underlined the value of working relationships in her opening remarks. Kuivasniemi said she hoped that the relationships formed because of SHARP can inform solutions in the future, as the new treaty on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response is negotiated.

Watch Kuivasniemi’s remarks in full on the video:

Strong collaboration guarantees the effectiveness and impact of the Joint Action. Work packages on communications – led by Public Health Wales, and the evaluation of the Joint Action – led by the National Public Health Organization of Greece, support the overall management of the Joint Action. Communications have been successful in promoting the joint action’s work and extending its reach to wider audiences. A blueprint for effective programme communications is about to be published that gives practical guidance to dissemination efforts for future Joint Actions.

Watch the entire presentation:

Key issues revealed by the internal and external evaluations conducted by National Public Health Organization of Greece (EODY) and the University of Thessaly, concern the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the work of SHARP. While the overall managing of the Joint Action has been successful, investment is still needed to ensure the results from the project are taken forward. The evaluation also identified the merit of networking and building personal relationships for exchanging solutions and best practices.

See the entire presentation on evaluation:

Joint Action results can continue to improve future health security

Sustainability of the JOINT ACTION’s results was a particular topic of interest at the final conference. The Ministry of Health of France is leading work that identified selected outcomes – based on their significance to national, regional, EU and global priorities – and how they could be taken forward after the end of the project.

For more on selected priority outcomes, watch the video:

These outcomes include the EMERGE Laboratory Network, coordinated by Robert Koch Institute as part of their work on strengthening laboratory preparedness and responsiveness. Sustaining the EMERGE network, first established under previous QUANDHIP and EMERGE joint actions, could contribute to meeting the new regulation on serious cross-border threats to health (SCBTH) concerning EU reference laboratories.

To learn more about this work, watch the video:

Efforts in chemical safety and chemical threats, led by UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), also holds possibility for future value. A report on the potential of establishing an EU-wide chemical network to support chemical incident response across Europe could inform provisions to address cross-border chemical health threats in EU preparedness and response planning. Whilst member states could integrate the standard operating procedures created for cross-border chemical health threats in their national preparedness and response plans.

Watch the entire presentation:

COVID-19 also brought the necessity for cross-country collaboration to the fore. Through workshop activities and a survey on international collaboration during health crises, the IHR core capacity strengthening and assessment work package makes the case for the establishment of a template agreement of intention for cross-border, multisectoral support between neighbouring countries. If adopted this will be a step change to improve cooperation mechanisms between EU member states and contribute to EU-level prevention, preparedness, and response planning.

The National Institute for Infectious Diseases “L. Spallanzani” (Italy) presented work on case management and infection prevention and control preparedness. Despite being heavily burdened by COVID-19, mapping of existing high level isolation units and preparing recommendations on the implementation of a syndrome-based clinical protocol have progressed. For the medium term, it is hoped that discussions continue at EU and national level of the findings of the feasibility study for an expert clinical support service for high-consequence infectious diseases. The ambition is for potential future inclusion of an expert clinical support service for high-consequence infectious diseases in the EU health programme.

Watch the entire hospital preparedness presentation:

A panel discussion found several potential avenues for progressing SHARP Joint Action’s results on national, EU, regional and global level. Julia Langer from DG SANTE emphasized the lead role of member states in taking SHARP deliverables forward and implementing them. She emphasised the opportunity to push SHARP results forward in the current momentum and awareness of the importance of preparing for health threats, both in terms of investments and regulations.

Langer also highlighted the role of the Health Security Committee of representatives from member states which is an instrumental audience for SHARP outcomes. The HSC which focuses, among other things, on developing guidelines for and supporting preparedness planning across sectors.

Jussi Sane from WHO EURO also encouraged the member states to be active in promoting the adoption of SHARP products. Developments that link closely to SHARP outcomes are the negotiations to create a new pandemic treaty as well as amendments to the IHR; these are member state led processes that SHARP outcomes could inform.

See the entire panel discussion on this video:

Intense months of work remain before SHARP JOINT ACTION finishes its work in September 2023. Many deliverables are still in process of getting finalised.

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