The impact of COVID-19 remains significant, even since the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced the end of the pandemic in May 2023. Learning to live with the virus which caused so much disruption is essential, yet governments and health authorities struggle in their campaigns to encourage continued vaccination against COVID.
In Brussels on Wednesday, 15 November, stakeholders and policymakers gathered to discuss the next steps in COVID’s shift from pandemic to endemic in a bid to ensure public health security across the EU.
COVID vaccination is moving towards a seasonal approach, similar to what happens for flu vaccination. However, renewed pushes to vaccinate populations against COVID have seen limited success this autumn. People are expressing fatigue, with a reduced sense of urgency to get vaccinated. Yet this fatigue ignores one key point: the most at-risk groups in the population, including the elderly and immunocompromised, remain at high risk for complications from COVID.
COVID-related hospital and intensive care unit admissions and deaths continue across Europe, with countries regularly reporting sharp increases. This highlights how important it is for at-risk individuals and those with whom they are in close contact (such as family members and healthcare professionals) to help protect themselves via regular vaccination.
Several ideas on how to boost vaccination rates were shared in the discussion. Vaccination needs to be made as convenient as possible for members of the public. During the pandemic, pop-up vaccination centres provided an unprecedented number of vaccinations to citizens. Following the closure of many of these centres, the task of finding a GP appointment for vaccination can be overwhelming, leading many to remain unvaccinated.
Public health communication was also central to the discussion. There are opportunities to increase communication to the public and healthcare professionals around the shift of COVID towards routine vaccination. The benefit of vaccination should become part of the wider discourse around public health threats in society. Members of the public need to be informed on how to get this information in a trustworthy manner. Innovative channels may help this communication get to those who are hardest to reach. Building awareness and confidence begins with healthcare professionals. Doctors, pharmacists and nurses need greater guidance and clarity on how to communicate about continued COVID vaccination to citizens.
During the pandemic, we also saw citizens seeking to inform themselves about different vaccine options at a level that was unprecedented. This was something the medical world has not previously had to deal with and is part of a new reality in which citizens are more educated and want to have a say about their health choices. In this context, ensuring the availability of a wide range of vaccine options will not only help healthcare professionals to respond to the specific need of each individual, but may also help increase the uptake of vaccines.
Governments – at both an EU and Member State level – play a key role in the management of the transition of COVID from pandemic to endemic. Collaboration and communication are crucial to this. Joint procurement allowed for the swift purchasing and distribution of vaccines across the EU. Going forward this could be a cost-efficient way of making vaccines available in a number of EU Member States that are willing to continue cooperating in this area. All vaccine manufacturers need to be on a level playing field for this to be effective, however.
Other actions discussed at an EU level include smoother centralisation of immunisation records, adopting a mission-based approach to vaccination (similarly to what was done in Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan) and an increased prioritisation of public health on the EU political agenda.
In conversation with...
Kelly Cappio, Vice President, Global Policy & Government Affairs at Novavax
Why is it important that we transition towards a seasonal vaccination context for COVID despite now moving beyond the pandemic?
Although the pandemic is over, COVID-19 is still a serious health threat. Infections and hospitalisations remain a concern and new variants of the virus continue to emerge. COVID-19 continues to make a significant impact on people across the EU – especially those most at risk of severe disease, including older adults and people with weakened immune systems and underlying conditions.
We know vaccination is the most cost-effective tool to protect against COVID-19. Based on our collective experience over the last few years, as well as recommendations from public health authorities, we expect that people will still need to get vaccinated against COVID-19 regularly. In the post-pandemic landscape, a new approach is needed – and, so far, this has been taking shape in a similar way to annual influenza vaccination.
Why is it important to offer citizens a range of vaccine options for COVID?
The effective management of COVID-19 in the long-term is underpinned by a competitive vaccine market in Europe, made up of multiple COVID-19 vaccine technologies and manufacturers.
A diverse vaccine portfolio is essential to enable the broadest access to and uptake of COVID-19 vaccines, as it can help increase vaccine confidence and foster greater trust by providing people with a choice of product options. The availability of multiple vaccine platforms also allows healthcare professionals to respond to the individual needs of patients, thereby driving more equitable access and higher vaccine uptake.
Furthermore, portfolio diversity supports a more resilient supply chain, decreasing the risks of shortages and delays in deliveries.
What can policymakers do to support the availability of vaccine options?
COVID-19 created a unique situation in which EU Member States pooled their resources together to buy vaccines under advance purchase agreements (APAs) signed between the European Commission and several companies, including Novavax. All but one of these contracts is ending in 2023, in alignment with the end of the pandemic. However, with a single remaining contract being extended until 2026 countries may become over reliant on one vaccine.
This risk was highlighted by both the European Court of Auditors and by the European Parliament in its report on COVID lessons learnt. What is needed now is action to mitigate this risk and ensure that the extension of one APA isn’t to the detriment of other manufacturers’ ability to compete in Europe on equal footing, and most importantly the ability of healthcare providers to provide EU citizens access to multiple vaccine options.
What’s your number one wish for policymakers?
My wish is for policymakers to prioritise vaccination and keep Europeans protected against COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. In policy terms, this prioritisation and ambition should be reflected in an EU Immunisation Strategy in view of the 2024 election. Ultimately, this would help to achieve an innovative and healthy Europe.
In partnership with
This article was produced in partnership with Novavax.