The Director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) agency has told MEPs that wearing masks during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic could pose a potential health hazard.
Speaking on Monday, Dr Andrea Ammon questioned the extent to which masks could restrict the spread of the disease.
Her comments come with some Member States staring to ease lockdown restrictions on Monday amid an ongoing debate about the necessity for the public to wear masks when outdoors.
Ammon told a virtual meeting of Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety that there had been “no change” in the agency’s guidance on wearing masks.
She noted that there are “different kinds” of masks, including surgical ones used in hospitals and those used in the “community”, largely designed to protect others from infection.
She appeared to question the evidence on how much wearing a mask can contribute to preventing the infection spreading, adding, “Certainly, masks cannot be used as a sole measure in restricting the spread of coronavirus and limiting transmission. They should only be seen as an additional tool and a further control in preventing the virus from spreading.”
“Masks cannot be used as a sole measure in restricting the spread of Coronavirus and limiting transmission. They should only be seen as an additional tool and a further control in preventing the virus from spreading” Dr Andrea Ammon, ECDC Director
“It [mask wearing] should be seen in the context of a set of other measures, for example, handwashing and social distancing.”
The official was briefing the committee on the ECDC’s work to address the COVID-19 pandemic, including on its latest risk assessment and a report looking at ways to limit transmission of the virus on public transport.
Dr Ammon also revealed that Bulgaria was now the only EU country where the infection was still on the rise. There were four other countries in Europe – Romania, Poland, Sweden and the UK – where there had been “no change” in recent days.
“All other EU countries have now seen a substantial decrease,” she said.
Overall, there had been, she said, some 3.5m cases worldwide, with 250,000 deaths. In the EU and UK there has been, so far, 1.1m cases and 130,000 deaths.
She added, “It is now clear that a high number of care homes have been severely affected.”
Care home fatalities exceed 50 percent of all deaths from the virus in some countries, she said.
She added, “The stay-at-home policies and social distancing have reduced the transmission overall by 45 percent compared with what it was on April 8.”
“It now appears to have passed its peak with a decline in most EU countries, but all Member States must continue to do several things to maintain this.”
These, she said, include “robust” surveillance strategies which, for instance, can follow the impact of the virus on health systems, extending testing and return-to-work strategies.
Other necessary measures include contact tracing and ensuring there is sufficient healthcare capacity in case of a “new surge.”
She said, “We must also identity best practice and, finally, engage with the public in explaining all these strategies.”
She told members, “I know you have heard this before, but this is a marathon, not a sprint so we must be able to manage peoples’ expectations of the continuing impact this will have on their lives.”
“People need to know that this is not going to end any time soon and they need to prepare for that reality.”
She added, “We must not drop our guard and must continue to maintain high standards of hygiene and social distancing. People need to be constantly reminded that this will not go away as long as we don’t have a vaccine.”
“We must not drop our guard and must continue to maintain high standards of hygiene and social distancing. People need to be constantly reminded that this will not go away as long as we don’t have a vaccine” Dr Andrea Ammon, ECDC Director
She told the committee that any tracing app was not a “silver bullet” but “just a tool that can facilitate and compliment contact tracing.”
The use of an app, she stressed, would need to follow the EU data protection regulation “because public trust needs to be maintained.”
“We must also ensure that data is not misused and that the app can work across borders.”
Dr Ammon also said “urgent clarification” was needed on the efficacy of antibody tests.
She was asked about the possibility of “classifying” each country according to their death toll from the virus but said this was “not a very reliable approach.”
On the issue of “under reporting” of cases and deaths - raised by German EPP member Peter Liese - she said, “What is reported depends on who has been tested and people are dying from the virus who have not been tested. Testing differs from one country to another but it is worth noting that all Member States are now ramping up testing.”
The official told deputies it was “not clear” if other diseases recently contracted by children were linked to the virus, adding, “we are working with clinicians trying to find out if and how these cases are linked.
“We have this issue on our radar.”
With constraints starting to be eased in countries like France and Belgium, she said, “When restrictions are lifted, it is imperative that there is still close monitoring so as to ensure that healthcare capacity does not fall short if cases start to rise again.
“After this crisis ends we, at EU level, should also look at how things can be improved, such as digitised and electronic surveillance systems. But this will all cost money.”
She said she was also “worried” that lockdowns, for instance, had led to a big fall in other preventable diseases being reported by the public.
In reply to a question from Irish EPP MEP Mairead McGuinness, who asked when the agency first became aware of the outbreak, she said, “It was clear at the end of last year that there was a cluster of cases in China and we published this on 9 January.”
Several members took part via video link, including Swedish Socialist Jytte Guteland, who said that differences in how Member States collect data on the virus – Belgium is said to have the world’s highest rate in the world because, unlike most others, it includes virus-related deaths in care homes - was a “serious problem.”
The issue was also raised by French RE member Veronique Trillet-Lenoir, who said, “The way data is collected varies hugely from one EU country to another. This makes it hard for us to be certain we are dealing with the same figures.”
Luxembourg Greens deputy Tilly Metz said she agreed with the official on the need for robust surveillance and enhance testing but asked, “I wonder if Member States actually have the means to do this?”
She also warned of a possible “rapid new wave of contamination.”
GUE member Katerina Konecna, from the Czech Republic, asked whether the agency needed “strengthened support” and more resources to deal with such outbreaks in the future, while Spanish EPP member Monserrat Dolors asked, “Countries are starting to lift restrictions but is there any coordination or supervision of this by the EU?”