COVID-19 and the project of “European Center for Disease Control” (ECDC)
The COVID -19 pandemics is a fearsome challenge for the World’s political and scientific
authorities. Most of them have taken relevant measures to control the spread of the virus.
Scientists around the world are exploring in emergency the possibilities for vaccine and
treatment. In Europe, an intergovernmental coordination has been settled. Yet it has to be
noted that the measures taken by different countries in Europe and all around the world are
quite disparate, which leads to a distressing, inefficient cacophony. It is quite unexpected
that the countries of the European Union accepted to cede their sovereignty in a domain
that is the very symbol of it (currency) and want to keep a total control of this sovereignty
when public health is concerned. This is especially regrettable in the case of transmissible
diseases, where a tight coordination is sorely needed. The question arises as to whether a
strong centralized sanitary structure could not have made it possible to face the COVID-19
challenge in a better coordinated manner.
With this mind, I have proposed since 1997 [1-4] the creation of a “European Center for
Disease Control” (ECDC) patterned after the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, where I have worked for one year. Like the US CDC, the ECDC was designed to have a threefold mission: (i) advanced, multidisciplinary research; (ii) control and surveillance; and (iii) professional training, preferentially targeted to Southern countries, where transmissible diseases are a top sanitary priority.
The ECDC should also have featured task forces of experts able to quickly intervene on
the spots where a given epidemics is an urgent threat.
When research is concerned, reliable solutions will not come from only one, or a few
disciplines. In front of the COVID-19 pandemics, many scientists have a tendency to present their own field (ecology, evolution, climatology for example) as the master solution. This is
irrelevant. The COVID-19 pandemics is multifactorial and should be addressed with a tight
collaboration and osmosis between various scientific disciplines: basic, applied and industrial
research, laboratory and field, theoretical and experimental, hard science and human sciences. This is still done nowhere. The ECDC could be a unique opportunity to start such a
multi-collaborative research in the same location.
Also like the US CDC, the goal of the ECDC was not to be a substitute to the other extent
health control and scientific organisations (the Pasteur Institute in Paris, the London School
of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, among many others), which are excellent, but rather, to
complement them and to help coordinating them over a broad geographical scale.
The project has undergone fierce oppositions [5, 6] and has not been successful. Its
remote heir is the present “European Center for Disease Prevention and Control” located in
Stockholm (Sweden) , which main mission is surveillance. Although quite useful and
operated by excellent international teams, its size and scope (only control and surveillance)
remain far below those of the US CDC. It is noticeable that it has been definitely unable to
ascertain a reliable coordination among European countries before the COVID pandemics.
I would certainly not claim that the ECDC would have been a panacea to fight against the
COVID-19 peril. The US CDC has not been a panacea either to control the pandemics in the
US. Also, there is definitely no question to design the ECDC in emergency, as did the Chinese government when building two new hospitals in Wuhan within a few weeks’ time span.
These hospitals were designed to take care in emergency of the flow of new infected
patients, while the chief mission of the ECDC would be long-term prevention and control.
Now, it can be thought that the ECDC would have been a quite precious tool to handle the
COVID-19 pandemics in an internationally coordinated way, the more so since that the
ECDC, even if it were initiated by the European Union, aimed to include the whole Europe
(not only the EU nations), the ex-USSR, and Turkey. Of course, this broad vision, although it
is highly desirable in a scientific and epidemiological point of view, would make the project
more difficult to get politically accepted. The ultimate proposal was to settle comparable
structures all around the World . Infectious agents ignore political structures and borders
. This is enough recalled by the COVID-19 affair.
Much time has been wasted. I suggest to keep in mind The ECDC concept to better face
future epidemics, since the COVID-19 pandemics probably is not the last warning of the kind.
Michel Tibayrenc is the editor-in-chief of Infection, Genetics and Evolution (Elsevier) and a
director of research emeritus of the French Institut de Recherche pour le Développement
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3. Tibayrenc M. A European centre to respond to threats of bioterrorism and major
epidemics. Bulletin WHO 2001. 79: 1094.
4. Tibayrenc, M., Mas-Coma, S., Piffaretti, J.C. & Struelens, M. 2002 (editorial). The
European Centre for Infectious Diseases: an adequate response to the challenges of
bioterrorism and major natural infectious threats. Infection, Genetics and Evolution 1
5. The Editor. Not Another European Institution. Lancet 1998.352, October 17: 1237.
6. Giesecke J Weinberg, J. A European centre for infectious diseases? Lancet 1998. 352,
October 17: 1308.
7. Tibayrenc M. the World CDC belt (W-CDC): An “utopian” vision for controlling major
pandemics and infectious diseases in general. ESCMID News 2007. 1: 42-43.