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Speech by President von der Leyen at the annual meeting of the U.S. National Academy of Medicine

Met dank overgenomen van Europese Commissie (EC), gepubliceerd op maandag 19 oktober 2020.

President Dzau, dear Victor,

Distinguished Members of the National Academy of Medicine,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is an honour for me to address your prestigious annual event.

For fifty years, the National Academy of Medicine has been the voice of objective and trusted advice.

For fifty years, it has brought together the best minds from the US and the world to obtain the best answers science can find.

And in that time the real strength of the Academy has always been its members:

From renowned professors to world-leading pioneers in their fields.

From economists to epidemiologists, CEOs to neurosurgeons, and even Nobel Prize winners to Presidential candidates.

This diversity reflects two realities that this Academy has always understood better than most.

The first is that science and research is at its best when it is applied.

I learnt this in different ways as a medical academic, as a physician and later as a politician.

As academics, we deepen our knowledge and specialise in our given field but can be frustrated when it is not translated into clinical outcomes.

As physicians, we gain a better understanding of what our patients are going through but can be frustrated with the system that cares for them.

And this is why as politicians, I believe it is our duty to draw on both scientific knowledge and lived experience to design policies that work.

This has always been my guiding principle throughout my career.

The second reality is that health and medicine do not exist in isolation.

You cannot understand health without understanding people and society, economy and environment.

This is nothing new.

Centuries ago, Hippocrates advised physicians to learn meterology before medicine.

And he was the first to speak of the link between disease and climate in his essay called "On Airs, Waters and Places".

But it is only more recently that this has become so obvious to everyone.

Every day we see the tragic consequences that come with extreme weather - such as the floods and landslides that recently hit southern France and northern Italy.

Or the wildfires that have ravaged through more than 4 million acres in California.

We have experienced forest fires, floods and droughts before, but not with this intensity and frequency.

And we have increasingly become aware about the links between rising temperatures, biodiversity destruction and infectious diseases.

Fifty years ago when this Academy was established, only nine countries faced severe outbreaks of dengue fever.

But as temperatures soar and human activity spreads,

it is now seen in more than 100 countries and a record number of cases were recorded last year alone.

The point is, that what happens in one part of the world, can have a deadly or devastating impact on the health of communities on the other side of the globe.

There is no such thing as "out of sight, out of mind" in today's world.

This is why the debate you are holding today is so fitting and so timely.

I say this because the links between health and climate are as evident as the parallels in the way we must address them.

So I would like to briefly touch on four common priorities in tackling global health and global warming.

These priorities drive the EU's approach and could define the next chapter of the transatlantic alliance.

The first is the need for international leadership and cooperation.

Global crises need global solutions.

And health and climate change are two areas where Europe is willing and able to lead.

And they are two areas where a strong transatlantic alliance has the potential to make a real difference.

When I came into office, one of the first things I did, was launch the European Green Deal.

The headline goal is to become the first climate neutral continent by 2050.

But behind it is also a commitment to support others to meet their own Paris Agreement objectives.

Similarly, when the pandemic struck, there was a clear need for global leadership and cooperation.

This is when my friend Victor Dzau called me.

He saw how Europe could take on the mantle and bring the world together.

And that is what we did.

Working with civil society, the G20, WHO and others, we brought more than 40 countries together, to raise 16 billion euros.

This will finance the development of vaccines, tests and treatments for the whole world.

In addition, we contributed 400 million euro to the COVAX Facility

to ensure that safe vaccines are available for all

  • whoever they are, wherever they are, whatever they can afford.

So in this spirit, I believe it is now time to revitalise global health cooperation.

From the first International Sanitary Conference in Paris in the 1850s to the Alma-Ata Declaration in the 1970s,

there is a long tradition of the world working together.

But a new impetus is needed and Europe is ready to lead the way.

Next year I will co-host a global health summit at G20 level,

with Prime Minister Conte of Italy,to draw the lessons from the crisis.

Europe is also ready to lead efforts to reform and strengthen the WHO.

And I hope we can work on this with the next US administration - whatever the result of the election.

The second common priority is: more effective preparedness and response.

Just as with mitigation and adaptation policies for climate change,

we must focus on the same principles for health.

The crisis exposed the lack of global investment in preparing for pandemics.

And it showed us the need to strengthen our capacity to respond to epidemics, emerging diseases and chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats.

This is a lesson that we are already heeding here in Europe.

We want to build a proper European Health Union in which all 27 member states prepare and respond together.

We are dedicating more money than ever to a new EU Health Programme.

We are strengthening our medical and scientific agencies.

And we will create a European body for biomedical advanced research and development, similar to the US BARDA.

The third common priority is the need for systemic change.

Challenges on a global scale cannot be fixed with a single intervention or a silver bullet.

It requires change involving government, industry, researchers and all of us as individuals.

This was one of the main drivers of the European Green Deal.

This is not just about cutting emissions.

It is our new growth strategy and a blueprint for the transformation of our economy and society.

It will address our over-consumption of raw materials, energy, water, food and land use.

It will look at how we live, work, travel and consume.

It will rely on research, innovation and digitisation to create new jobs.

It is ultimately about securing the long-term health of our planet, our economy and our people.

The fourth and final common priority is the need to use and respect science.

And here I come back to the need for evidence-based policymaking.

Last month, I announced a new target for Europe to reduce its emissions by at least 55%, as compared to 1990 levels.

This target was set following an extensive impact assessment, which looked at every sector, every region, every scenario.

This robust evidence base is the only way we can set ourselves realistic goals and explain to people the need, rationale and opportunity of change.

Like many of you, I am concerned about the erosion in trust in science in some quarters.

We saw the same pattern with climate sceptics as we now see with those spreading disinformation about vaccines, treatments or data.

But science is also making a popular comeback.

The world has seen its true value for policymaking and for communicating complex public health decisions.

We must continue to stand up for science - so science can help us find and explain solutions to our global challenges.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Our planet and our health are the world's most precious global common goods.

And I firmly believe that tackling climate change is the best global health opportunity of our generation.

Europe is ready to lead and to make this the next task for the transatlantic alliance.

This is why this Academy's work is so vital in today's world.

And it is why I was so happy to join you today.

Thank you once again Victor for the invitation and thank you all for listening.

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