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COVID-19 vaccinations: More solidarity and transparency needed 

EU Reporter Correspondent

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MEPs supported the EU's common approach to fighting COVID-19 and called for more unity and clarity during a debate on the roll-out of vaccines and the EU's vaccines strategy.

During a plenary debate on 19 January about the EU’s strategy on Covid-19 vaccinations, most MEPs expressed support for the EU's common approach, which ensured the quick development and access to safe vaccines. However, they called for even more solidarity when it comes to vaccinations and transparency regarding contracts with pharmaceutical companies.

Esther de Lange (EPP, Netherlands) said: “Only more transparency can take away the widespread perception – whether this is justified or not – that often, too often, profit is put before people in this (pharmaceutical) industry.” She praised the EU's joint purchase of vaccines, which led to a stronger negotiation position than individual EU countries would have had: “That means more vaccines for a better price and under better conditions. It shows what Europe can do when we stand united. We can help save lives.”

Iratxe García Pérez (S&D, Spain) warned against "health nationalism" that could damage cooperation on vaccines in Europe. According to her, solidarity and unity is the answer: “If we can keep unity and have equitable distribution of vaccines in member states, we have reasons to believe that 380 million European citizens will be vaccinated by the summer. This is a scientific and health feat that cannot be ruined by parallel contracts and direct purchases." She added: "Let us speak with one voice so that the largest vaccination campaign in history will bring hope back to us in 2021.”

“What are we doing exactly to increase the speed of administering vaccines across the EU?” asked Dacian Cioloș (Renew, Romania). “I know this is a race against time, but in this race we cannot forget that we have a responsibility to do things in full transparency, a responsibility to our citizens to gain their trust. That trust is largely what the vaccination campaign depends on."

Joëlle Mélin (ID, France) said the negotiation of the vaccine contracts lacked transparency. “We are now in the distribution phase and we discover that there are shortages and broken promises from the pharmaceutical companies,” she added.

Philippe Lamberts (Greens/EFA) also talked about the need for transparency and the fact that the European Commission kept the contracts with laboratories secret: “This opaqueness is an insult to democracy. In every single contract the buyer has to know what he or she is buying at what conditions and what price.” He also spoke about potential liability issues: “It is crucial to know who will hold the liability if there were to be negative side effects of the vaccination - would it be the public decision makers or would it be the drug makers? We have no idea.”

Joanna Kopcińska (ECR, Poland) said the decision for the common vaccination strategy was right: “We need an overarching strategy and of course scepticism has a lot to do with a fear that the vaccination is moving slowly, the delivery is maybe late and the contracts are not transparent." She called for the systematic update of treatment strategies and appropriate information campaigns that reach out to everyone.

Marc Botenga (The Left, Belgium) called for more transparency of contracts and responsibility from pharmaceutical companies. He criticised uneven access to vaccines globally, noting poorer regions have difficulties obtaining enough vaccines. “No profit needs to be made on this pandemic and we certainly do not want segregation at vaccinations.”

Plenary debate on the EU global strategy on Covid-19 vaccinations Some of the speakers during the debate on COVID-19 vaccinations  

Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides assured MEPs that their calls for transparency had been heard. She welcomed the fact that the first of the vaccine suppliers had agreed to make the text of their contract available and said the Commission was working to get other producers to do the same.

Kyriakides said she expects to see more applications for the authorisation of vaccines in the coming months. She stressed the importance of a global approach: “No country will be safe and no economy will truly recover until the virus is under control in all continents." She also talked about Covax - the global facility to ensure fair and universal access to Covid-19 vaccines that the EU helped to set up - which aims to purchase two billion doses by the end of 2021, including more than 1.3 billion for lower- and middle-income countries.

Ana Paula Zacarias, the Portuguese Secretary of State for European Affairs who was speaking on behalf of the Council, said the common EU approach, which sped up the process of developing, authorising and securing access to vaccines, must continue to ensure the availability and efficient rollout of vaccines in all member states.

Zacarias said that a number of issues still need to be resolved, including the format and role of the vaccination certificate, a common approach on the use and validation of antigen rapid tests and the mutual recognition of COVID-19 test results.

Backgound: Race for vaccines

From the very beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, the European Parliament has closely followed the vaccine research and development process. The EU coordinated a joint effort to secure the speedy deployment of vaccines against the disease, through the mobilization of hundreds of million euro for research projects and more flexible procedures. Parliament approved a temporary derogation from certain rules for clinical trials to allow vaccines to be developed faster.

MEPs on the health committee repeatedly highlighted the need for public trust in vaccines and the importance of fighting disinformation and asked for more transparency regarding vaccine contracts, authorization and deployment in the EU.

Under the EU Vaccines Strategy launched in June 2020, the Commission negotiated and concluded advance purchase agreements with vaccines developers on behalf of EU countries; the EU covers part of the costs faced by the producers in return for the right to buy a specified amount of vaccine doses in a given timeframe and at a given price, once they are granted market authorisation. So far, six contracts with pharmaceutical companies have been concluded.

After scientific evaluation and positive recommendation by the European Medicines Agency, the European Commission  granted conditional market authorisation to the first vaccine against Covid-19, developed by BioNTech and Pfizer, on 21 December 2020. Vaccinations across the EU started shortly afterwards on 27 December. On 6 January 2021, Moderna’s vaccine was given conditional market authorisation. The vaccine developed by AstraZeneca could be authorised by the end of January.

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India warns of worsening COVID-19 situation, vaccinations to expand

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India announced an expansion of its vaccination programme on Wednesday (24 February) but warned that breaches of coronavirus protocols could worsen an infection surge in many states, write Krishna N. Das and Neha Arora.

Nearly a month after the health minister declared that COVID-19 had been contained, states such as Maharashtra in the west and Kerala in the south have reported a surge in cases, as reluctance grows over mask-wearing and social distancing.

India’s infections are the second highest in the world at 11.03 million, swelled in the past 24 hours by 13,742, health ministry data shows. Deaths rose by a two-week high of 104 to 156,567.

“Any laxity in implementing stringent measures to curb the spread, especially in view of new strains of virus ... could compound the situation,” the ministry said in a statement singling out nine states and a federal territory.

India has confirmed the long-time presence of two mutant variants - N440K and E484Q - in addition to those first detected in Brazil, Britain and South Africa.

The ministry said that while cases in the states of Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Kerala, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab, as well as the federal territory of Jammu and Kashmir, were rising, the proportion of high-accuracy RT-PCR tests in those places was falling. Cases have also risen in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.

In the past week, a third of India’s 36 states and union territories have reported an average of more than 100 new cases each day, with Kerala and Maharashtra both reporting more than 4,000, in a trend experts link to the reopening of schools and suburban train services.

The government has also asked states to speed vaccinations for healthcare and frontline workers. Just about 11 million people have received one or two doses in a campaign that began on Jan. 16, versus a target of 300 million by August.

From March 1, India will start vaccinating people above 60 and those older than 45 with health conditions free of charge in about 10,000 government hospitals and for a fee in more than 20,000 private facilities, the government said.

Earlier on Wednesday, a regulatory panel sought more data from drugmaker Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories for emergency authorisation of Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine, a senior official with direct knowledge of the discussions said.

The Central Drugs Standard Control Organization did not immediately reply to a Reuters request for confirmation.

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Denmark to ease some COVID-19 restrictions from 1 March

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Denmark will ease some shopping restrictions and allow schools in parts of the country to reopen on 1 March, the government said on Wednesday (24 February), potentially allowing hospital admissions to triple in the coming month, writes Nikolaj Skydsgaard.

Denmark, which has one of the lowest infection rates in Europe, has seen general infection numbers drop after it introduced lockdown measures in December in a bid to curb a more contagious coronavirus variant.

Based on recommendations from an expert advisory group, the government said stores under 5,000 square metres will be allowed to reopen, while outdoor leisure activities can resume with an upper limit of 25 people.

“More activity will also mean more infected and thus also more hospitalisations,” Health Minister Magnus Heunicke told a press conference.

Heunicke said hospital admissions could briefly peak at some 880 in mid-April, more than triple the current 247.

“It will happen as spring sets in and more and more people get vaccinations.”

Schools in parts of the country will also be allowed to reopen, but will require students to test themselves twice a week.

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EU's von der Leyen tells skittish Europeans: 'I'd take AstraZeneca vaccine'

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The European Union’s most senior administrator said she would happily receive AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine as officials rushed to find ways of ensuring doses refused by skittish Germans did not go to waste, writes Thomas Escritt.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s (pictured) remarks came amid growing concerns that unfavourable comments by top European officials including French President Emmanuel Macron had slowed take-up of one of only three vaccines currently approved EU-wide.

Earlier this month, Macron said Britain had taken a risk in authorizing AstraZeneca so rapidly. A German official study also found evidence that, though effective, the vaccine has more severe side effects than its two main rivals.

“I would take the AstraZeneca vaccine without a second thought, just like Moderna’s and BioNTech/Pfizer’s products,” von der Leyen told the Augsburger Allgemeine.

The endorsement is all the more striking for coming a month after the European Commission that she heads entered into sharp correspondence with AstraZeneca over suggestions, denied by the company, that the British-Swedish company had prioritised Britain over the EU in delivering the vaccine.

The Commission has been criticised over the slow pace of vaccination across the 27-member-bloc, with critics saying it failed to secure sufficient early supply of the vaccines that leaders are banking on to bring an end to the pandemic that has devastated the continent’s economy.

In Germany, where a widespread preference for the German-designed BioNTech vaccine has led to a growing number of unused AstraZeneca doses, officials and politicians competed to suggest ways of making sure they did not go to waste.

Berlin’s Social Affairs Senator Elke Breitenbach said unused doses should be given to the 3,000 homeless living in the city’s emergency accommodation. “We shouldn’t forget those who don’t have a loud lobby behind them,” she told Funke Media Group.

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer had earlier said unused vaccines should go to the police.

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