MEPs to learn more about new EU attempt to contain variants of Coronavirus

With Member States still firmly in the grip of the pandemic, the Commission is proposing what it calls “immediate action” to prepare Europe for the “increased” threat of Coronavirus variants.
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By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

15 Mar 2021

As criticism grows about the EU’s vaccination programme, the Commission says its new bio-defence preparedness plan will help guard against COVID-19 variants.

Called “HERA Incubator” the new plan seeks to bring together researchers, biotech companies, manufacturers and public authorities to detect new variants.

The idea is also to provide “incentives” to develop new and adapted vaccines, speed up the approval process for any new vaccines and ensure scaling up of manufacturing capacities.

Further details on the HERA Incubator will be presented by the Commission at a meeting of the Environment, Public Health and Food Security Committee later on Monday.

Committee members will debate the COVID-19 variants and how effective vaccines are against them with representatives from the European Medicine Agency (EMA), the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

The initiative for the “incubator” was approved by Member States at a recent EU summit where Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, “Taking action now is important as new variants continue to emerge and challenges with scaling up vaccine production are arising.”

“The HERA Incubator will serve as a blueprint for the EU’s long‑term preparedness for health emergencies.”

“The infection rate in the EU is now said to be at its highest level since the beginning of February, with the spread of new variants of the COVID-19 virus being blamed for much of the recent increase”

She added, “Our priority is to ensure that all Europeans have access to safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines as soon as possible. At the same time, new variants of the virus are emerging fast and we must adapt our response even faster.”

She said the plan will help the EU “to stay ahead of the curve”, saying, “It brings together science, industry and public authorities, and pulls all available resources to enable us to respond to this challenge.”

Monday’s committee meeting comes with Europe bracing itself for a third wave of the Covid pandemic, with sharp rises in infection rates and numbers of cases.

The infection rate in the EU is now said to be at its highest level since the beginning of February, with the spread of new variants of the COVID-19 virus being blamed for much of the recent increase.

Several Member States will this week impose strict new lockdown measures - in contrast to the UK, which is beginning to ease restrictions.

Last Friday, Italy recorded more than 27,000 news cases and 380 deaths and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said, “More than a year after the start of the health emergency, we are unfortunately facing a new wave of infections. The memory of what happened last spring is vivid, and we will do everything to prevent it from happening again.”

Similar rises are reported in German, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Each are, like Italy, also planning new restrictions.

“Our priority is to ensure that all Europeans have access to safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines as soon as possible. At the same time, new variants of the virus are emerging fast and we must adapt our response even faster”

Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission President

Meanwhile, Frans Timmermans, Vice-President of the European Commission, has acknowledged that the European Union has made mistakes when ordering Coronavirus vaccines.

“It is true that mistakes were made in ordering the vaccines, both in Brussels and in the Member States,” Timmermans reportedly said at the weekend.

Timmermans said he wants to take stock after the pandemic has ended, adding, “Then we can see what we have done wrong and what we have done right.”

He said he still believes, however, that a European approach was the right way of dealing with the crisis, adding, “you have to make sure that all of Europe gets vaccines.”

But critics have condemned the European Commission's Coronavirus policy, saying it acted much too late, hesitated and made strategic mistakes in the procurement of vaccines. Comparison with other countries, such as the UK, could not be starker.

On Monday, some 46 percent of adults in the UK had had a vaccine. In Belgium, only 700,000 have had a jab so far. Almost as many Britons have had a second jab as Belgians have had their first.

Elsewhere, a new survey, commissioned by the Brussels-based SMEunited Study Unit, suggests a partial recovery in Europe’s virus-hit economies of 5.2 percent up to 59.8 percent after the negative record of 54.6 percent registered in autumn 2020.

The SME Business Climate Index says that although “deconfinement” and the temporary return to business-as-usual operations triggered a positive rebound, the numbers are mitigated by the outbreak of the second wave at the end of 2020.

In spite of the resumption, the limitations on non- essential services and the consequent shrink in consumers’ demand severely impacted especially the SMEs’ service sector, it says.

Consequently the recovery in autumn has been less pronounced than expected.

Southern and peripherical areas, which were faced with a deeper recession, show a larger positive effect from deconfinement than northern and central countries.

Overall, the gap between these two areas reduced to 10.5 from 15.8 points.

Speaking on Monday at the presentation of the findings, SMEunited economic and fiscal policy director Gerhard Huemer stated, “Deconfinement measures over summer triggered an encouraging rebound across all sectors, even if slower than forecasted.”

“The worst results are collected for personal and business services, which suffered from new lockdowns and reduced demand. On the other hand, the construction sector performs better than the average.”

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