Health security and infectious diseases

Crisis management

Infectious diseases can spread rapidly if action is not taken in time. In the event of a cross-border outbreak, the response must be quick, targeted and coordinated. Similarly, chemical threats or environmental disasters (e.g. volcano eruptions) can quickly go beyond the borders of a single country or can overpower national capacities for response.

The EU’s role in managing health crises is mainly to ensure the coordination of the response; while the specific public health measures remain the responsibility of national governments, taking into account factors such as the national epidemiological situation, social structure and national health system capacity.

The Commission works closely with all EU countries to ensure their response is coherent and well-coordinated. The Commission can also mobilise EU-level instruments of direct support to Member States, such as joint procurement.

The most recent COVID-19 pandemic is a major health crisis requiring extensive coordinated action at EU level. A previous example of EU coordination in action is the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Health Security Committee

EU rapid response to serious cross-border threats to health is coordinated by the Health Security Committee (HSC). It is a key forum for exchange of information on specific measures adopted by each country and, together with the European Commission, define the actions to follow on preparedness, planning, risk and crisis communication and response.  

The HSC is composed of representatives of EU countries’ health authorities with candidate and potential candidate countries participating as observers. Specifically for HSC meetings on COVID-19, countries such as UK, Switzerland and Ukraine are invited to participate to strengthen cooperation.

The HSC meets at regular intervals and when the situation requires, upon request of the European Commission or an EU country. It is chaired by the Commission. The HSC has had frequent meetings since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whenever an EU country intends to adopt public health measures to combat a serious cross-border threat, it must inform other EU countries and the European Commission on their nature, purpose and scope prior to adoption, unless the need to protect public health makes immediate adoption necessary.

Representatives from national health services consult within the HSC in liaison with the European Commission to coordinate

  • national responses to the serious cross-border threat to health
  • risk and crisis communication to the public and healthcare professionals, which can be adapted to national needs and specificities

In the event of a serious cross-border threat to health overwhelming national response capacities, an affected EU country may also request assistance from other EU countries through the Union Civil Protection Mechanism.

Pharmaceutical procedures during a pandemic threat

In cases of a pandemic threat or a very serious threat that endangers public health in the European Union, the European Commission may declare a situation of public health emergency, which triggers special provisions in the EU pharmaceutical legislation to get rapid marketing authorisation for medical products. It may also consider a fast-track procedure for rapid authorisation of pandemic influenza vaccines.

The Commission is also in permanent contact with key partners such as the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Risk and crisis communication

Clear and effective information and communication to the public and to health professionals are essential parts of crisis responses at national level.

The EU supports Member States in their risk communication in the event of outbreaks but does not impose harmonised messages. Instead, the Commission’s role is to ensure coordination across Member States so that communication to the public and healthcare professionals is coherent and consistent.

Communicators' Network

The Health Security Committee established the Communicators' Network, a sub-group that brings together communication risk-management experts from EU countries, the Commission, and EU agencies who take the lead on communication aspects of a health crisis.

This network facilitates cooperation:

  • during a crisis – by simplifying the exchange of  information from the beginning, and coordinating the national strategies and public messaging to make sure they are consistent and coherent while remaining tailored to the national circumstances
  • in the longer term – by enabling the exchange of best practice on health risks/crisis communication, and providing recommendations for preventative measures

Technical working group on COVID-19 diagnostic tests

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Health Security Committee established in May 2021 a Technical working group on COVID-19 diagnostic tests, bringing together experts from the 27 EU countries and Norway, as well as representatives from the Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety, the Joint Research Centre  and the ECDC.

In particular, the technical working group will discuss

  • proposals for updates to the EU common list of rapid antigen tests, to be agreed by the HSC
  • a harmonised protocol, including common criteria, for independent validation studies assessing the clinical performance of rapid antigen tests

More information on the technical working group and its activities