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#COVID-19 - Research package welcomed, EU needs to be better equipped in future

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A researcher at work in a laboratory ©Vectorfusionart/AdobeStockA researcher at work in a laboratory ©Vectorfusionart/AdobeStock 

"We applaud the measures taken by Commissioner Gabriel and the pooling of almost €140 million against COVID 19. The Commission was very fast in launching a special call for expressions of interest from Horizon 2020 and involving relevant stakeholders under the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) public-private partnership", said Horizon Europe rapporteur Christian Ehler (EPP, DE).

"Now, we have to start thinking ahead in order to be better equipped for the future. Research and development clearly have an important role to play in addressing global challenges. This is yet another reason to support our proposal for €120 billion for Horizon Europe," he added.

A test of our ability to work together

"The health crisis posed by COVID-19 is focusing minds. The top priority now is to stem the spread of the virus. Behind the scenes, emergency research is working on finding a treatment and a vaccine. The virus’ extraordinary rate of contagion should make us aware that our interconnected world has shrunk considerably and that joint and coordinated action between states is the only way to deal with this crisis," said Christian Ehler.

"This crisis is a test of our ability to work together on an emergency situation on the one hand, and to remain faithful to our long-term objectives on the other," he said.

"When this crisis is over, we must immediately prepare for the next one. This means investing more in research and ensuring that programmes such as Horizon Europe do not become hostages to short-term squabbles between member states," he concluded.

COVID-19: EU and industry to fund more research through Innovative Medicines Initiative

The Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), a public-private partnership between the European Commission and the pharmaceutical industry, has today launched a fast-track call for research proposals to develop treatments and diagnostics in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Up to €45 million of the funding will come from Horizon 2020, the EU research and innovation programme.

This call is part of the co-ordinated EU response to the public health threat of COVID-19 and complements the emergency research funding already mobilized recently under Horizon 2020. You can find more information about the IMI call here, and the EU research actions on COVID-19 here.

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COVID-19 vaccines: EU must respond with unity and solidarity 

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MEPs expressed broad support for the common EU approach to fighting the pandemic and called for complete transparency regarding contracts and deployment of COVID-19 vaccines.

In the plenary debate on Tuesday (19 January), MEPs exchanged views with Ana Paula Zacarias, Portuguese Secretary of State for European Affairs, and Stella Kyriakides, EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety.

A large majority of MEPs showed their support for the united EU approach, which ensured vaccines are being developed quickly and secured access to vaccines for all European citizens. At the same time, they deplored “health nationalism”, including alleged parallel contracts signed by member states or attempts to outcompete each other. In order to uphold the European success story, the EU must respond with unity and solidarity, with all levels of government working together, say MEPs.

Members called for the terms of contracts between the EU and pharmaceutical companies involving public money to be completely transparent. Recent efforts by the Commission, to allow MEPs to consult one incomplete contract, were deemed insufficient. MEPs reiterated that only complete transparency could help combat disinformation and build trust in the vaccination campaigns across Europe.

Speakers also acknowledged the global dimension of the COVID-19 pandemic, which requires global solutions. The EU has a responsibility to use its position of strength to support its most vulnerable neighbours and partners. The pandemic can be overcome only once all people have equal access to vaccines, not only in rich countries, MEPs added.

The debate also touched upon other issues, such as the need for comparable national data and mutual recognition of vaccinations, the need to avoid delays and increase the speed of vaccination, as well as the unconstructive nature of blaming the EU or the pharmaceutical industry for any failures.

Watch the video recording of the debate here. Click on the names below for individual statements.

Ana Paula Zacarias, Portuguese Presidency

Stella Kyriakides, EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety

Esther de Lange, EPP, NL

Iratxe García Pérez, S&D, ES

Dacian Cioloş, Renew Europe, RO

Joëlle Mélin, ID, FR

Philippe Lamberts, Greens/EFA, BE

Joanna Kopcińska, ECR, PL

Marc Botenga, The Left, BE

Context

The Commission published an additional communication on the EU’s COVID-19 strategy on 19 January. EU leaders will debate the pandemic state of play during the European Council meeting on 21 January.

Background

On 22 September 2020, Parliament held a public hearing on “How to secure access to COVID-19 vaccines for EU citizens: clinical trials, production and distribution challenges”. During the December 2020 Plenary session, Parliament expressed support for the speedy authorization of safe vaccines and on 12 January 2021, MEPs blamed a lack of transparency for fuelling uncertainty and disinformation regarding COVID-19 vaccination in Europe.

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Independent pandemic review panel critical of China and WHO delays

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An independent panel said on Monday (18 January) that Chinese officials could have applied public health measures more forcefully in January to curb the initial COVID-19 outbreak, and criticized the World Health Organization (WHO) for not declaring an international emergency until 30 January, writes .

The experts reviewing the global handling of the pandemic, led by former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, called for reforms to the Geneva-based United Nations agency.Their interim report was published hours after the WHO’s top emergency expert, Mike Ryan, said that global deaths from COVID-19 were expected to top 100,000 per week “very soon”.

“What is clear to the Panel is that public health measures could have been applied more forcefully by local and national health authorities in China in January,” the report said, referring to the initial outbreak of the new disease in the central city of Wuhan, in Hubei province.

As evidence emerged of human-to-human transmission, “in far too many countries, this signal was ignored”, it added.

Specifically, it questioned why the WHO’s Emergency Committee did not meet until the third week of January and did not declare an international emergency until its second meeting on Jan. 30.

“Although the term pandemic is neither used nor defined in the International Health Regulations (2005), its use does serve to focus attention on the gravity of a health event. It was not until 11 March that WHO used the term,” the report said.

“The global pandemic alert system is not fit for purpose,” it said. “The World Health Organization has been underpowered to do the job.”

Under President Donald Trump, the United States has accused the WHO of being “China-centric”, which the agency denies. European countries led by France and Germany have pushed for addressing the WHO’s shortcomings on funding, governance and legal powers.

The panel called for a “global reset” and said that it would make recommendations in a final report to health ministers from the WHO’s 194 member states in May.

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Biden to block Trump's plan to lift COVID-19 European travel restrictions

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US President-elect Joe Biden plans to quickly extend travel restrictions barring travel by most people who have recently been in much of Europe and Brazil soon after President Donald Trump lifted those requirements effective 26 January, a spokeswoman for Biden said, writes .
Trump signed an order on Monday (18 January) lifting the restrictions he imposed early last year in response to the pandemic - a decision first reported Monday by Reuters - after winning support from coronavirus task force members and public health officials.

Soon after Trump’s order was made public, Biden spokeswoman Jen Psaki tweeted “on the advice of our medical team, the Administration does not intend to lift these restrictions on 1/26.”

She added that “With the pandemic worsening, and more contagious variants emerging around the world, this is not the time to be lifting restrictions on international travel.”

Until Biden acts, Trump’s order ends restrictions the same day that new COVID-19 test requirements take effect for all international visitors. Trump is due to leave office on Wednesday.

Last week, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention signed an order requiring nearly all air travelers to present a negative coronavirus test or proof of recovery from COVID-19 to enter the United States starting on Jan. 26.

The restrictions Trump rescinded have barred nearly all non-U.S. citizens who within the last 14 days have been in Brazil, the United Kingdom, Ireland and the 26 countries of the Schengen area in Europe that allow travel across open borders.

The U.S. restrictions barring most visitors from Europe have been in place since mid-March when Trump signed proclamations imposing them, while the Brazilian entry ban was imposed in May.

Psaki added that “in fact, we plan to strengthen public health measures around international travel in order to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19.” The Biden transition did not immediately respond to a request to comment on if it planned to expand the countries covered.

Biden, once in office, has the legal authority to reimpose the restrictions.

Last Tuesday, Marty Cetron, director of CDC’s global migration and quarantine division, told Reuters those entry bans were an “opening act strategy” to address the virus spread and should now be “actively reconsidered.”

Airlines had hoped the new testing requirements would clear the way for the administration to lift the restrictions that reduced travel from some European countries by 95% or more.

They had pressed senior White House officials about the issue in recent days.

Many administration officials for months argued the restrictions no longer made sense given most countries were not subject to the entry bans. Others have argued the United States should not drop entry bans since many European countries still block most U.S. citizens.

Reuters previously reported the White House was not considering lifting entry bans on most non-US citizens who have recently been in China or Iran. Trump confirmed Monday he would not lift those.

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