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The EU’s Response to COVID-19

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The European Commission is working on all fronts to support efforts to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak. This includes ongoing coordination with Member States to share information, assess needs and ensure a coherent EU-wide response. The Commission is also funding research, offering support through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism and supporting China with emergency medical supplies to tackle the outbreak at its source.

What has the Commission been doing since the outbreak of COVID-19 was reported in China?

1) At EU level, under the Cross-border Health Threat Decision, the Commission coordinates with Member States through three key mechanisms:

  1.     The Early Warning and Response System
  2.     The Health Security Committee
  3.     The Health Security Committee’s Communicators’ network.

These tools support cooperation, rapid exchange of information, swift monitoring and coordination of preparedness and response measures to COVID-19.

2) The Commission, with support from relevant EU agencies, in particular the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), is providing technical guidance related to: risk assessments; case definition for diagnosis and aligned reporting of suspected and confirmed cases; infection prevention and control in health care settings; advice for travellers; updated information on therapeutics and vaccines; contact tracing on aircrafts; management of points of entry and aviation sector recommendations.

Moreover, Member States’ Joint Action Healthy Gateways, funded by the EU, is providing guidance and training on points of entry measures, as well as another Joint Action, SHARP (strengthened international health regulations and preparedness in the EU) on laboratory preparedness.

3) The Commission has been coordinating the delivery of assistance to China as well as financing the transport costs of EU Member States’ repatriation flights.

4) To boost global preparedness, prevention and containment of the virus, new funding worth €232 million will be allocated to different sectors, namely:

– €114 million will support the World Health Organization (WHO), in particular the global preparedness and response global plan. This intends to boost public health emergency preparedness and response work in countries with weak health systems and limited resilience. Part of this funding is subject to the agreement of the EU budgetary authorities. 

– €15 million are planned to be allocated in Africa, including to the Institute Pasteur Dakar, Senegal to support measures such as rapid diagnosis and epidemiological surveillance.

– €100 million, out of which up to €90 million Public Private Partnership with the pharmaceutical industry and 10 million for research on epidemiology, diagnostics, therapeutics and clinical management in containment and prevention. *

– €3 million allocated to the EU Civil Protection Mechanism for repatriation flights of EU citizens from Wuhan, China.

Is the EU prepared and equipped to contain the spread of COVID-19?

Member States continuously inform the Commission and share information regarding their levels of preparedness.

According to the information provided by the national authorities, there is a strong overall level of preparedness with countries having response measures in place to provide treatment for the cases in the EU and to mitigate any further transmission within and into the EU.  

On 13 February, an extraordinary EPSCO Health Council brought together all Member States at a political level to discuss and coordinate measures to limit the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak and further preparedness measures to be considered for the future.

In response to the Council Conclusions of this meeting, the key actions on which the Commission is in the process of following up include continued risk assessment and guidance on travel advice; increased preparedness should the outbreak escalate to the next phase; and activation of existing funding mechanisms to support Member States on preparedness and response to the COVID-19. Other key actions include examining joint procurement for potential needs of protective equipment and strengthened support to the Health Security Committee in providing aligned information across the EU on the virus, detection, use of equipment, etc.

How is the Commission supporting the repatriation of EU nationals from China?

The European Commission has a 24/7 Emergency Response Coordination Centre that is coordinating repatriation flights with EU Member States.

The Commission provides funding to EU Member States to cover up to 75% of the transport costs of these repatriation flights via the EU Civil Protection Mechanism.

The EU Civil Protection Mechanism has facilitated the repatriation of 447 EU citizens from Wuhan, China. In late January, two French aircraft brought back 346 EU citizens, while Germany also conducted one repatriation flight, which brought back 101 EU citizens.

A third repatriation flight was organised by France, repatriating more than 70 EU citizens who were still in Wuhan.

The EU Civil Protection Mechanism also co-financed the last leg from London to the respective Member States of 95 EU citizens brought back on a UK repatriation flight.

Also under the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, Italy sent two planes for the repatriation of EU citizens quarantined on the Diamond Princess cruise that had been docked in Yokohama, Japan, since early February.

What is the EU doing to support China?

The European Commission coordinates the delivery of emergency medical supplies to China through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism.

As of 21 February, over 30.5 tonnes of personal protective equipment to China has been provided by France, Germany, Italy, Latvia and Estonia. The transport costs were co-financed by the EU Civil Protection Mechanism.

  • The first 12 tonnes came as an immediate first offer of assistance, via the first repatriation flights from France and Germany in late January.
  • On 14 February, Italy sent 1.5 tonnes of protective overalls and masks to the Chinese Red Cross in Beijing.
  • On 19 February, France sent a plane to Wuhan with a 20-tonne cargo of surgical masks, gloves, thermometers and disinfectant, which also included material from Latvia and Estonia.
  • On 23 February, an Austrian aircraft departed from Vienna with protective equipment which included masks, gloves, protective clothing and disinfectant.

The Commission stands ready to provide any further assistance to China.

The European Emergency Response Coordination Centre continues to reach out to Member States to map potential contributions of personal protective equipment that will be delivered to China in the near future.

How is the public health risk in Europe evaluated as regards COVID-19?

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) is monitoring the outbreak through epidemic intelligence activities, and provides risk assessments to guide EU Member States and the European Commission in their response activities. The ECDC is in continuous contact with the European Commission, the public health authorities in the EU Member States, China and other countries and the World Health Organization for the assessment of this outbreak. ECDC also publishes daily summaries and risk assessments for EU citizens.

What EU-funded research is ongoing on COVID-19?

On 31 January, the Commission launched a request for expressions of interest for research proposals on the novel coronavirus. A budget of €10 million is made available for research that will improve clinical care of patients infected with the virus, as well as the overall public health response. The Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) announced its plan for a fast-track call for proposals on the novel coronavirus to be launched in early March. 

In addition, the EU already funds several ongoing research projects that have reoriented their focus to address the COVID-19 outbreak. For example, the PREPARE project ensures research preparedness of clinical treatment sites and the use of harmonised research protocols across Europe through their network of 3,000 hospitals and 900 laboratories in 42 countries. Another EU-funded project, the European Virus Archive GLOBAL (EVAg) has already made available more than 1,000 kits that support the diagnosis of the novel coronavirus, to 79 countries worldwide.

The Commission coordinates with the World Health Organization and other research funders to ensure that research gaps are covered. This happens mainly through the “Global research collaboration for infectious disease preparedness” (GloPID-R) network, the secretariat of which is EU funded. A global research and innovation forum was organised by the World Health Organization and GloPID-R on 11-12 February, to identify research priorities across 10 different thematic areas.

Are food products imported from China safe?

There has been no report of transmission of COVID-19 via food. Therefore, there is no evidence that food items imported into the European Union in accordance with the applicable animal and public health regulations governing imports from China pose a risk for the health of EU citizens in relation to COVID-19.

Moreover, due to the animal health situation in China, only a few products of animal origin are authorised for import into the EU from China, on the condition that they meet strict health requirements and have been subjected to controls.

Is there a vaccine available?

The Commission, with relevant EU agencies, is actively engaged in the arena of therapeutics and vaccine developments. At this stage, the Commission is focusing its funding efforts on research with a timely impact on the current public health emergency due to COVID-19, including on the development of diagnostics and therapeutics. This is in line with the Commission’s emergency research funding of €10 million that was made available at the early stages of the outbreak. Vaccine development is addressed through CEPI (the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation), an initiative the Commission contributes to.

Background

What is COVID-19?

COVID-19, previously named 2019-nCoV, was identified in China at the end of 2019 and is a new strain of coronavirus that has not been previously known in humans.

Where do Coronaviruses come from?

Coronaviruses are viruses that circulate among animals but some of them are also known to affect humans. After they have infected humans, transmission can continue between humans.

A wide range of animals is known to be the source of coronaviruses. For instance, the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) originated from camels and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) originated from civet cats.

What is the mode of transmission? How (easily) does it spread?

While animals are the source of the virus, COVID-19 is now spreading from one person to another (human-to-human transmission). There is currently not enough epidemiological information to determine how easily and sustainably this virus is spreading between people. It seems to be transmitted mainly via respiratory droplets that people sneeze, cough or exhale. The incubation period for COVID-19 (i.e. the time between exposure to the virus and the onset of symptoms) is currently estimated at five to six days, ranging up to 14 days.

While it is known that the virus can be transmitted when an infected individual has symptoms, there are still uncertainties regarding whether mild or asymptomatic cases can transmit the virus. If people with COVID-19 are tested and diagnosed in a timely manner and rigorous infection control measures are applied, the likelihood of sustained human-to-human transmission in community settings in the EU/EEA is low. Systematic implementation of infection prevention and control measures were effective in controlling SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

From what we know so far, the virus can cause mild, flu-like symptoms such as

  • fever
  • cough
  • difficulty breathing
  • pain in the muscles and
  • tiredness.

More serious cases develop severe pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome, sepsis and septic shock that can lead to the death of the patient. People with existing chronic conditions seem to be more vulnerable to severe illness.

Is there a treatment for the disease caused by COVID-19?

There is no specific treatment for this disease so the approach used to treat patients with coronavirus-related infections is to treat the clinical symptoms (e.g. fever). Supportive care (e.g. supportive therapy and monitoring, oxygen therapy, fluid management and antivirals) can be highly effective for those infected.

Is there a vaccine against COVID-19?

There are currently no vaccines against coronaviruses, including COVID-19. That is why it is very important to prevent infection or contain the further spread after an infection.

EU Politics

EU clears way for the EU Digital COVID Certificate

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Today, the Presidents of the three EU institutions, the European Parliament, the Council of the EU and the European Commission attended the official signing ceremony for the Regulation on the EU Digital COVID Certificate, marking the end of the legislative process. On this occasion Presidents David Sassoli and Ursula von der Leyen and Prime Minister António Costa said:

“The EU Digital COVID Certificate is a symbol of what Europe stands for. Of a Europe that does not falter when put to the test. A Europe that unites and grows when faced with challenges. Our Union showed again that we work best when we work together. The EU Digital COVID Certificate Regulation was agreed between our institutions in the record time of 62 days. While we worked through the legislative process, we also built the technical backbone of the system, the EU gateway, which is live since 1 June.

We can be proud of this great achievement. The Europe that we all know and that we all want back is a Europe without barriers. The EU Certificate will again enable citizens to enjoy this most tangible and cherished of EU rights – the right to free movement. Signed into law today, it will enable us to travel more safely this summer. Today we reaffirm together that an open Europe prevails.”

EU Digital COVID Certificate

The aim of the EU Digital COVID Certificate is to facilitate safe and free movement inside the EU during the COVID-19 pandemic. All Europeans have the right to free movement, also without the certificate, but the certificate will facilitate travel, exempting holders from restrictions like quarantine.

The EU Digital COVID Certificate will be accessible for everyone and it will:

  • cover COVID-19 vaccination, test and recovery;
  • be free of charge and available in all EU languages;
  • be available in a digital and paper-based format;
  • be secure and include a digitally signed QR code;

Member States shall refrain from imposing additional travel restrictions on the holders of an EU Digital COVID Certificate, unless they are necessary and proportionate to safeguard public health.

In addition, the Commission committed to mobilising €100 million under the Emergency Support Instrument to support Member States in providing affordable tests.

The Regulation will apply for 12 months as of 1 July 2021.

Background

On 17 March 2021, the European Commission presented a proposal to create an EU COVID Certificate to facilitate the safe free movement of citizens within the EU during the pandemic. On 20 May, co-legislators reached a provisional agreement. On 1 June, the technical backbone of the systems, the EU gateway, went live. The gateway allows the verification of the security features contained in the QR codes.

Following the official signature today, the Regulation will enter into application on 1 July, with a phasing-in period of six weeks for the issuance of certificates for those Member States that need additional time.

13 Member States have already started to issue EU Digital COVID Certificates.

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EU Politics

EU proposes a strong multilateral trade response to the COVID-19 pandemic

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EU has submitted its proposal seeking the commitment of World Trade Organization (WTO) members for a multilateral trade action plan to expand the production of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, and ensure universal and fair access. With this proposal to the WTO, divided in two communications, the EU underlines the WTO’s central role in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and urges fellow WTO members to agree on a set of commitments, including on intellectual property rights.

President von der Leyen said: “The EU has actively shown solidarity with the world since the beginning of the pandemic. The European Union authorized exports of around half of the total amount of vaccines produced in Europe. Our immediate, urgent goal is to ensure equitable access for low – and middle-income countries, to share vaccines wider and faster. And we continue to help ramping up production. The EU proposes concrete short and medium term solutions to ensure universal access at affordable prices. I am looking forward to discuss with the G7 leaders next week how to achieve this goal. Beyond the current crisis, it is important to ensure global preparedness for future pandemics: diversifying manufacturing so that it is not centralised only in a handful of countries and strengthening the resilience of the healthcare infrastructure in least developed countries”.

Executive Vice-President and Commissioner for Trade Valdis Dombrovskis said: “The pandemic is still with us and there can be no room for complacency. We need to urgently concentrate on proposals that accelerate the equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines worldwide. In this respect, a strong multilateral trade response could deliver a huge boost in the fight against COVID-19. In reality, the main problem at this moment relates to the lack of sufficient manufacturing capacity to rapidly produce the required quantities. The objective must be to ensure that any available and adequate manufacturing capacity anywhere in the world is used for the COVID-19 vaccines production.”

More on the EU’s proposal

The EU calls on governments to:

  1. Ensure that COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and their components can cross borders freely;
  2. encourage producers to expand their production, while ensuring that those countries most in need of vaccines receive them at an affordable price, and;
  3. facilitate the use of compulsory licensing within the WTO’s existing Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). The TRIPS Agreement already provides this flexibility, which is a legitimate tool during the pandemic that can be used swiftly where needed

The first element aims to limit the use of export restrictions and keep supply chains open. Vaccine-producing countries should be ready to export a fair share of their domestic production. Supply chains are highly interconnected and should not be disrupted. In addition, the EU considers that supplies to the COVAX Facility should never be restricted, and no measures should limit trade in inputs necessary for the production of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. 

The second element calls on governments to strongly encourage and support vaccine manufacturers and developers to expand production and ensure the affordable supply of vaccines to low- and middle-income countries. Such actions could include licensing agreements, the sharing of expertise, tiered pricing including non-profit sales to low-income countries, contract manufacturing and new investments in manufacturing facilities in developing countries. The EU expects all vaccine producers and developers to make concrete pledges that increase supplies to vulnerable developing countries. In this regard, the EU welcomes the commitment of companies such as BioNTech and Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna, which have already committed to delivering 1.3 billion doses this year to low-income countries at no profit and to middle-income countries at lower cost.

The third element, on intellectual property, sets out that voluntary licences are the most effective instrument to facilitate the expansion of production and sharing of expertise. Where voluntary cooperation fails, compulsory licences, whereby a government grants a targeted licence allowing a willing producer to make a vaccine without the consent of a patent holder, are a legitimate tool in the context of a pandemic. The EU considers that all WTO members should be ready to:

  • agree that the COVID-19 pandemic is an exceptional circumstance of national emergency, and that the requirement to negotiate with the rights’ holder may be legitimately waived where needed;
  • support manufacturers that are ready to produce vaccines and/or treatments at affordable prices under a compulsory licence so that the level of remuneration paid by the manufacturer to the patent holder reflects such affordable prices;
  • agree that the compulsory licence could cover any exports destined to countries that lack manufacturing capacity, including via the COVAX facility.

The EU is also tabling a dedicated communication on intellectual property to the WTO body in charge of implementing the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Council). Here, the EU provides more detail and clarity on each of the three points on intellectual property and links them with the specific provisions in the TRIPS Agreement. As regards the broad waiver proposed by a number of WTO members, the European Commission, while ready to discuss any option that helps end the pandemic as soon as possible, is not convinced that this would provide the best immediate response to reach the objective of the widest and timely distribution of COVID-19 vaccines that the world urgently needs. Today’s proposals aim at achieving that objective in a swift and effective manner.

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EU Politics

EU Digital COVID Certificate: Parliament and Council reach agreement

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Photo: Lukas Souza/Unsplash

The Commission welcomes today’s provisional political agreement between the European Parliament and the Council on the Regulation governing the EU Digital COVID Certificate. This means that the certificate (previously called the Digital Green Certificate) is well on track to be ready end of June, as planned. Today’s agreement has been reached in record time just two months after the Commission’s proposal. The negotiations on the certificate for the Commission have been led by Commissioner Didier Reynders in close cooperation with Vice-Presidents Vera Jourová and Margaritis Schinas and Commissioners Thierry Breton, Stella Kyriakides, and Ylva Johansson.

Welcoming this swift progress, President Ursula von der Leyen said:

“We are delivering on our commitment to have the EU Digital COVID Certificate up and running before the summer. European citizens are looking forward to travelling again, and today’s agreement means they will be able to do so safely very soon.

The EU Digital COVID Certificate is free of charge, secure and accessible to all. It will cover vaccination, test and recovery offering different options to the citizens. It fully respects citizens’ fundamental rights, including protection of personal data.

All EU citizens have a fundamental right to free movement in the EU. The EU Digital COVID Certificate, available in paper or digital format, will make it easier for Europeans to travel – whether to see their families and loved ones or to get some well-deserved rest.

We would like to thank the European Parliament and the Portuguese Presidency for their dedication, perseverance and immense work at record speed to find an agreement on the proposal we presented.

Work still remains. At EU level, the system will be ready in the next few days. It is now crucial that all Member States press ahead with the roll-out of their national systems to ensure that the system can be up and running as soon as possible. This is what EU citizens rightly expect.

Today’s agreement has demonstrated that with the commitment and cooperation of all, the EU Digital COVID Certificate will be available on time.”

The EU Digital COVID Certificate – key features

Following the agreement reached by the European Parliament and the Council, the EU Digital COVID Certificate:

  • will cover vaccination, test and recovery;
  • will be available in a digital and paper-based format, depending on the choice of the recipients, and contain a digitally signed QR code;
  • will be free of charge, be obtained easily and also available to persons vaccinated before the EU Digital COVID Certificate Regulation has entered into force;
  • may also be used by Member States for national purposes, if this is provided for in national law.
  • Member States shall refrain from imposing additional travel restrictions on the holders of an EU Digital COVID Certificate, unless they are necessary and proportionate to safeguard public health.
  • The Commission will also mobilise €100 million to support Member States in providing affordable tests.

Next Steps

The political agreement will now have to be formally adopted by the European Parliament and the Council. The Regulation will enter into force on 1 July, with a phasing-in period of six weeks for the issuance of certificates for those Member States that need additional time.

In parallel, the Commission will continue to support the Member States in finalising their national solutions for the issuance and verification of EU Digital COVID Certificate, and to provide technical and financial support to Member States to on-board the gateway.

Background

On 17 March 2021, the European Commission presented a proposal to create an EU COVID certificate to facilitate the safe free movement of citizens within the EU during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the Commission’s request, the Parliament voted in favour of the activation of the urgent procedure for the two proposals on 25 March. The Council adopted its negotiating position on 14 April, and the Parliament did so on 29 April. On 20 May co-legislators reached provisional agreement on this file.

In parallel to the legislative process, important progress was already made on the technical side. The EU Gateway, which allows to verify certificates across borders, is ready and will go live as of June. Successful pilot tests took place with 17 Member States and Iceland during the last two weeks, further five Member States will test next week.

The Commission also provide open source reference software to support Member States to develop their national solution to issue certificates, to scan and check the QR codes, and a reference wallet for storage.

Previously, on 21 April, technical specification guidelines were adopted by Member States representatives in the eHealth Network, a voluntary network connecting national authorities responsible for eHealth. They are building on the close work of the Commission with the Member States, having resulted in first guidelines adopted in January and updated on 12 March, and a trust framework outline agreed on 12 March 2021. In addition, a common design template was developed in the eHealth network.

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