European CDC begins recruiting

New body will hire 16 scientists this year; total staff could number 300 by 2010

Mar 31, 2005
Pat Hagan(pat.hagan@btconnect.com)

The head of the new European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) has begun the process of hiring staff. Zsuzanna Jakab, who took up her post as director of the new agency on March 1, told The Scientist that 29 people, including 16 scientists, will be recruited in the current financial year, and the European Commission is expected to start advertising the posts immediately. By 2010, Jakab predicted, the total number of staff could be 300.

Jakab has also been putting together an advisory panel of approximately 50 experts from various member states to give expert guidance. The panel is scheduled to hold its first meeting on April 28 at the ECDC's Stockholm headquarters. She will likely hire a deputy in May.

The European Union has given Jakab until the autumn to draw up a strategy document that sets out the new organization's objectives and how it plans to achieve them.

To buttress the new body's limited funding—€ 4 million (USD $5.2 million) this year, €14 million (USD $18.2 million) in 2006, and €29 million (USD $37.6 million) in 2007—Jakab is lobbying member states to pay the salaries of high-ranking experts who actually work at the center. Sweden and France have already allocated one each. "They are called detached national experts," Jakab said. "They are funded by their national governments but they will be working at the ECDC under my authority. I've been seeing lots of health ministers from around the EU and I've been asking them all to consider seconding additional experts in either the short or long term."

One of the biggest obstacles facing Jakab is the improvement of data quality so that the ECDC can provide an early warning system on emerging infectious diseases. "I want to see the ECDC as a one-stop shop for EU countries, allowing experts in one member state to compare statistics with the other 24," she said. "I strongly believe this is a major step forward, and if, in 2 or 3 years' time, we have a surveillance system that is the best in Europe, I would be very pleased."

Angus Nicoll, head of the Centre for Infectious Diseases at the Health Protection Agency in the United Kingdom, told The Scientist he believes the ECDC could play a crucial role in protecting the health of an expanding EU population. "This project is very exciting because it's much easier for infections to move around inside Europe than it used to be," Nicoll said. "Having a center that can control that is potentially very useful."

Nicoll, who is a member of Jakab's advisory panel, believes the ECDC is a chance to avoid previous mistakes in deciding who's responsible for dealing with outbreaks in Europe.

"The EU is not always great at clarifying things. It did not do terribly well during the SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] scare [of 2003] because there was no central body organizing the information. Instead, we relied almost entirely on the World Health Organization in Geneva," Nicoll said. "Although EU countries do work well together, we don't have a 'ringmaster' who can get things working when needed."

"The other issue is, will it be fully operational or just an observatory of the EU? If one country reports an outbreak and the ECDC did nothing, it would not be very useful," Nicoll said. "Equally, you don't want it just going into a country and saying 'We've come to sort it out.'"

Nicoll pointed out that current EU surveillance relies on a network of strategic hubs that feed into the EU from member states. The United Kingdom, for example, has centers that monitor gastrointestinal infections and Legionnaire disease; France has hubs for tuberculosis and HIV.

"One controversial question is, will the new center suck up all the EU money that comes to these hubs?" Nicoll wondered. "I hope it doesn't, because my worry would be that it would put up a barrier between us and them."