EU seeks to boost stockpile of iodine pills and nuclear protective gear

Brussels has accelerated plans designed to improve the EU’s health response in case of a nuclear incident following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, according to EU officials.

The European commission is seeking to encourage EU members to stockpile iodine pills, protective suits and other medicine. It is also working on ways to deal with possible chemical and biological attacks after the US warned that Russia could use such weapons in Ukraine.

A commission spokesman said: “The commission is working to ensure it enhances preparedness in the area of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear threats (CRBN) generally, and this predates the war in Ukraine.”

The move comes as Vladimir Putin, Russian president, put his nuclear weapons forces on high alert.

Earlier this month pharmacies in countries including Belgium, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic ran out of iodine pills after Russian forces targeted and damaged a Ukrainian atomic power station. The attack prompted warnings about the risks if a radioactive leak spreads across the continent.

Such leaks release radioactive iodine, which concentrates in the thyroid gland when it is inhaled and can lead to cancer. Potassium iodine tablets saturate the gland with iodine, preventing the absorption of the radioactive material.

Brussels is applying the lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic, which caught Europe without sufficient supplies of personal protective equipment or a vaccine.

Last September it established the European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA) to identify possible future health emergencies and be ready for them.

European parliamentarians say HERA needs to move faster to keep pace with developments in Ukraine.

Véronique Trillet-Lenoir, an MEP for French president Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche party, said: “We need to draw strong lessons from Covid. We require specific measures for nuclear sites. We are not ready. We do not have the stocks.”

“We have a nuclear threat from a mad guy in the Kremlin,” she said. “We need a European stockpile and to have a system of alert and monitoring. We need to do simulations to be ready.”

National governments decide most health matters in the EU but the Covid crisis led to more joint action in Brussels, such as vaccine procurement.

In case of an emergency HERA will be in charge of the response. It will activate funding and launch mechanisms for monitoring, targeted development, procurement and purchase of medical countermeasures and raw materials. It also has production facilities ready to fulfil demand for drugs.