In our globalised society, serious infectious health threats will eventually make their way across national borders. This underlines the importance of strong international cooperation with partners at EU and global level.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) has constantly assessed the evolving risk and advised EU/EEA member States on suitable response options.
Based on data collected and lessons learned, we have delivered guidance to EU/EEA member states on most aspects of COVID-19, from infection prevention and control in hospitals to recommendations on the use of non-pharmaceutical interventions and vaccines.
Investing in robust surveillance systems
An important part of our pandemic response has been to collect, analyse and disseminate epidemiological data. During the pandemic, we have witnessed many member States’ challenges in establishing robust surveillance systems to deliver reliable, timely and comparable data on COVID-19.
Initial delays in detecting ongoing community transmission in some countries led to widespread transmission before any mitigation measures could be taken, thus leading to a severe impact in several EU/EEA countries during the spring of 2020.
More recently, the lack of adequate, representative and integrated whole-genome sequencing data has contributed to the rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern. If high-performing surveillance systems had been in place, they would have informed more tailored and effective response measures, which in turn could have reduced the societal and economic impact of the pandemic.
We need to develop stronger, population-based and fit-for-purpose surveillance systems that take advantage of new technologies and existing health data.
Lessons learnt from the pandemic
We need to develop stronger, population-based and fit-for-purpose surveillance systems that take advantage of new technologies and existing health data. Electronic health records are used in many European countries, but are not sufficiently standardised for their data to be used routinely.
More effort also needs to be put into standardisation so that data can be comparable across countries. Tools such as mobile apps, where data is entered by members of the public, could also help detect outbreaks and monitor levels of community transmission of syndromes associated with pandemic threats.
Another important lesson learnt is that preparedness and planning was not as robust, financed or as comprehensive as it needed to be. Strengthening public health systems and capacity building nationally and internationally is therefore key and must be seen as an investment and not a cost. This is true not only during pandemics, such as the current one, but also to tackle vaccine-preventable diseases and antimicrobial resistance.
While it is not possible to predict exactly how future crises will play out, efforts should be focused on constructing frameworks that make our future response more effective and our health structures more resilient.