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#Coronavirus - Commission boosts urgently needed research and innovation with additional €122 million

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The Commission has mobilized another €122 million from its research and innovation programme, Horizon 2020, for urgently needed research into the coronavirus. The new call for expressions of interest contributes to the Commission's €1.4 billion pledge to the Coronavirus Global Response initiative, launched by President Ursula von der Leyen on 4 May 2020.

The new call is the latest addition to a range of EU-funded research and innovation actions to fight the coronavirus. It complements earlier actions to develop diagnostics, treatments and vaccines by strengthening capacity to manufacture and deploying readily available solutions in order to rapidly address the pressing needs. It will also improve understanding of the behavioural and socio-economic impacts of the epidemic.

Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Commissioner Mariya said: "We are mobilising all means at our disposal to fight this pandemic with testing, treatments and prevention. But to succeed against the coronavirus, we must also understand how it impacts our society and how to best deploy these interventions rapidly. We must explore technological solutions to manufacture medical equipment and supplies faster, to monitor and prevent the spread of the disease, and to better care for patients.”

Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton added: "We are supporting the health authorities, healthcare professionals and the general public in all member states in tackling the coronavirus crisis. To this end, we are deploying innovative technologies and tools that can quickly be used to prevent, optimally treat, and recover from this pandemic and prepare for its aftermath. These include digital solutions and technologies such as telemedicine, data, AI, robotics, and photonics.”

The projects funded under this call should repurpose manufacturing for rapid production of vital medical supplies and equipment needed for testing, treatment and prevention, as well as develop medical technologies and digital tools to improve detection, surveillance and patients care. New research will learn from large groups of patients (cohorts) across Europe and better understanding of the behavioural and socio-economic impacts of the coronavirus epidemic could help improve treatment and prevention strategies.

The deadline for submission is 11 June 2020, while the call will focus on delivering results quickly. Europe, and the world at large, urgently need innovative solutions to contain and mitigate the outbreak, and to better care for patients, survivors, vulnerable groups, frontline health care staff and their communities. This is why the Commission aims to enable research work to start as quickly as possible through shorter timelines for the preparation of expressions of interest and for their evaluation.

The new solutions need to be available and affordable for all, in line with the principles of the Coronavirus Global Response. For this purpose, the Commission will include rapid data-sharing clauses in grant agreements, resulting from this new call, to ensure that findings and outcomes can be put to use immediately.

Background

This new special call under Horizon 2020 complements earlier actions to support 18 projects with €48.2m to develop diagnostics, treatments, vaccines and preparedness for epidemics, as well as the €117m invested in 8 projects on diagnostics and treatments through the Innovative Medicines Initiative, and measures to support innovative ideas through the European Innovation Council. It implements Action 3 of the ERAvsCorona Action Plan, a working document resulting from dialogues between the Commission services and national institutions.

The new call will cover five areas with the following indicative budgets:

  1.     Repurposing of manufacturing for vital medical supplies and equipment (€23 million)
  2.     Medical technologies, Digital tools and Artificial Intelligence analytics to improve surveillance and care at high Technology Readiness Levels (€56 million)
  3.     Behavioural, social and economic impacts of the outbreak responses (€20 million)
  4.     Pan-European COVID-19 cohorts (€20 million)
  5.     Collaboration of existing EU and international cohorts of relevance to COVID-19 (€3 million)

Cohort studies typically observe large groups of individuals, recording their exposure to certain risk factors to find clues as to the possible causes of disease. They can be prospective studies and gather data going forward, or retrospective cohort studies, which look at data already collected.

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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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