Interview with Peter Liese –

Interview with Peter Liese

Giu 23, 2021
Hello, everyone, and welcome to Askanews EU Verified Series. In February 2021, the European Commission presented its long awaited flagship initiative, Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, featuring four pillars: prevention, diagnosis, treatment and quality of life of cancer patients. The European Parliament gave a one year mandate to BECA Committee, a special committee on beating cancer to work on its own draft report. Askanews is hosting a series of interviews to hear straight from the BECA members what their priorities and commitments are and how their Report will fit in with the European Agenda. I am Lorenzo Peiroleri, editor at Askanews, and I have the great honor to host our third interview with our guest, the shadow rapporteur in the BECA Committee, member of the European Parliament’s EPP group and spokesperson for the group in the ENVI Committee, Dr Peter Liese. Welcome, Doctor Liese.

Q. Let me start by asking you what the main priorities of your political group are in terms of the fight against cancer?

A. The EPP group prioritized the fight against cancer already for some years. It was an important part of our campaign and we are now very happy that the European Commission and the left on the line published the plan and that the parliament as a whole supports the fight against cancer and its need to be a priority. We have already one big achievement the Horizon Europe programmes. Our big research programmes has included a mission on cancer, which means that concrete improvements for cancer patients is a priority of European research. I think that’s already a victory for the EPP and more important, a victory for patients. We want to make life easier for people that fight cancer, for example, when it comes to the use of data, European data protection regulation is very rich. We are in favour of data protection, but scientists must be able to use this data when the patients agree. And that should be less bureaucratic. And this is only one example for obstacles in cross-border health research that we want to abolish. The second point is that we want to improve the rights of patients. Cancer patients and also others to go for treatment in another European country if they think the best expertise is in another country or if for family reasons, they want to get some treatment in another country, it should also be easier and less bureaucratic. And there are many more points. But maybe let me give one more example, which we would address: our focus is always on legal action. So not only recommendation where member states can agree or not, but legal action that really helps the patients. We want to improve the situation of cancer survivors. But when people have got that treatment and the doctors say, “OK I don’t have to see you anymore you are fine”, they are still discriminated, for example, with insurance companies and here we want to change European law that this kind of discrimination will no longer be possible.

Q. You mention insurance as an example of how cancer survivors should not be discriminated against. Is this an issue in all member states or is it just in some countries?

A. Now, it’s an issue in all member states. Some member states have already addressed it successfully, France and Belgium have legislation on the right to be forgotten. Others don’t. And that’s why we need to improve. And this is also a typical field where member states and the European Union need to work together. There are issues like insurance, where we have European legislation, and this can be improved to protect the right of cancer survivors. But there are other issues where it’s mainly the national competence. And here we are promoting best practice and encouraging other member states like Italy and Germany to follow the example of Belgium and France.


Q. Horizon Europe is a big achievement but with limited financial resources, how do you view the balance between investing in treatment and care and providing resources for research? Will there be a call for more budget?

A. Yeah, we have fought a lot. The European Parliament in the end was successful that the Horizon Europe programme will be substantially increased. And now, the Council, under the pressure of the frugal four: Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark pushed for reducing the European budget, and unfortunately, they chose research. We were not able to accept this, and that’s why the research money is increased. So this is important and this is especially important for research that is not profitable for the industry. So you have the Cancer Societies, the charity said do research, for example. How can you treat patients with less pharmaceuticals and have the same effect? So this will never be funded by the industry. And that’s why public institutions, including European Union, need to support it, especially when it’s cross-border clinical trial that needs to be done by Europe. But we also need a framework of incentives for industry that really helps patients. And sometimes we have very, very expensive pharmaceuticals that are only marginally improving the life of cancer patients. So it costs a lot, but it helps not a lot. And we need a framework of legislation where it pays for the companies to do the real breakthrough technologies. And that includes many elements. One important element is the health technology assessment, where Europe looks together at the positive effects and it’s really an added value. That the institutions that work on the assessment of the added value should work together with the EMA. So when a company sees at an early stage that a drug will not really improve the life of patients and that’s why maybe it will not be reimbursed. We better focus on something different. So we need more targeted investments that really help. And one of the promising technologies is definitely the mRNA technology that can really make breakthroughs because the company BioNTech, it helps us now to stop the pandemic. Most of the vaccine that we have in Europe and globally comes from BioNTech, that was originally a company that wanted to fight cancer. It is a bit more complicated to fight cancer than to fight the virus. But this breakthrough in modern technology will also help cancer patients and that’s why it’s good not only for covid-19 that Europe invested in this technology for years now. So BioNTech got a lot of money from the European Commission already, before the pandemic started because we believed this technology will also help to fight cancer.

Q. You speak of pharmaceutical investment in terms of development of products. But what about production? Are you planning incentives to reshore manufacturing in Europe to prevent shortages?

A. Yeah, definitely, that’s another big challenge. It was already acute before the pandemic started. We, as EPP, we started a process inside the Parliament to address the shortage of medicines already in January last year. At that stage, as a group we thought, it is not so urgent. But when the pandemic started, everybody was convinced that it was a high priority. We are already close to agreeing on the new regulation for the European Medical Agency so that the medical agency has more means to monitor the shortage and to address the shortage. And the second step must be that when the health care systems may be insurance companies or insurance institutions or the State in state-funded systems when they procure pharmaceuticals, that the security of supply must be a very important criteria, not only the price, but also security of supply. And the best case would be that all the companies that serve in Europe, the health system, they should have at least two production sites, one of those should be in Europe, to have more assurance against the shortage of life threatening, saving medicines.

Q. Moving back to cancer, we know that many of the chemicals we interact with may cause cancer just like pollution and sun exposure. The same is said about lifestyle choices, we shake our finger at red meat, alcohol, tobacco, and even coffee which is the most consumed drink worldwide.  Is the drinking in moderation campaigns for alcohol consumption a good approach to apply to other causes?

A. Yeah. So first of all, according to my knowledge, there’s no evidence that coffee is a problem. So in fact, the latest science tells us coffee is less problematic also for the heart. So coffee is not our problem. Our problem number one is smoking. And here we should continue to help people to quit smoking. In our view as EPP, tobacco replacement products like e-cigarettes are one of the solutions. We shouldn’t promote them for children, but for heavy smokers it’s a good alternative. Then it’s a healthy lifestyle in a broader sense, so more fruits, more vegetable and more fish, less red meat and of course, less calories because also obesity is a problem. Physical activity is important. And unfortunately, also alcohol is a problem. I’m a doctor and I was for many years arguing that moderate consumption of alcohol is even good for your health. Unfortunately, this is not true. I like to have a glass of wine, but I do it for fun, not because I think it’s healthy. So even the first glass of wine or a glass of beer is problematic. But we shouldn’t put alcohol in the same pocket as tobacco because it is more than five times more dangerous to be a heavy smoker than if you are a moderate drinker. So we should have proportionate health warnings. Which means, of course, the labelling of ingredients and also calories. You know, it’s ridiculous. If you have an orange juice, you need to label the calories. If you put vodka in the orange juice, you don’t have to label it anymore because it’s alcohol. That must change and moderate health warnings, so don’t drink and drive, don’t drink when you are pregnant. And I personally think also including that alcohol can cause cancer, that should be a good solution. But no horror pictures on wine bottles. I’m against this dramatic solution.

Q. Do you think in the cancer plan there would be any significant step forward in considering vaping as a solution to help people quit smoking?

A. I think yes, and here the Commission is too negative, in my view. The Commission speaks about further restrictions for e-cigarettes. I don’t think we should make it more complicated for people that want to change from tobacco to e-cigarettes. It is a challenge when people do both. So that is not the right choice, people should quit smoking. And if vaping is an alternative, we should not make it more complicated. So it needs to be regulated so that there is no campaigns for children to start vaping. But heavy smokers should have the option and we shouldn’t make it more complicated.

Q. Some of your colleagues from both the Left and the Right side are pushing for the inclusion of a general approach of harm reduction in cancer policies, I would be interested in your position on this?

A. Yeah, I’m in favor of harm reduction and especially I would think it’s ridiculous when we do harm reduction with heroin and not with tobacco. We have State programmes that not only promote methadone for addicted people, but even heroin in a clean environment so that you don’t infect yourself and you have some kind of oversight. So if the State even supports the use of heroin in a safe environment to reduce harm, why should we not allow the harm reduction with e-cigarettes? I think harm reduction is an element. Of course, in an ideal world, people would not use tobacco and not use e-cigarettes, but we need to see the facts of life. So there are many heavy smokers that cannot quit immediately and they can reduce their risk of cancer and other diseases like cardiovascular diseases and stroke dramatically if they change from a cigarette to e-cigarettes.

Q. One final question. The BECA report has to look at cancer from many different sides, including trying to balance prevention, treatment and research, if you should, to rank them in terms of importance. How would you list to the following research on environmental pollution prevention and lifestyle choices and treatment?

A. Yeah, of course, treatment is the most important because 50 percent of the cancer, we don’t know the costs, and that’s why we cannot even really prevent it. And that’s why we need to help patients. And even if, you know, if you get health problems after smoking, we should help the people, our solidarity shouldn’t end at this stage. So treatment is number one then research because, first of all, if we don’t know the cause, we need to look for it and try to address it and also find new therapy where we don’t have one. Number three is lifestyle, because when we look at what we already know, it is very obvious from figures from the WHO that smoking, obesity, physical activity, natural radiation, alcohol have a much bigger share than pollution. But that doesn’t mean that pollution is no issue. So we need to do whatever we can to reduce pollution in cars, to reduce harmful chemicals. But we should not fool ourselves and think that only industry is guilty when we have cancer. As far as we know, our lifestyle is more important than any kind of environmental effects that we have and this is the key is with with all of us and not only with industry.

Thank you very much. This has been hugely and informative. Many thanks again to Peter Liese for joining us.

Thank you. It was a pleasure. Bye.

Thank you to our viewers, an see you at our next interview with another member of the Baker Committee for updates on the European cancer plan. Please visit our Africa Europe section and ask the news that at.

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