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Technological solutions are the key to tackling Europe’s second wave of Covid-19

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Europe is suffering a brutal second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, with a number of major economies back in lockdown after a brief reprieve over the summer. Last week, Italy joined a growing list of countries with more than a million recorded cases of the virus, Poland’s National Stadium has been transformed into a field hospital, and Spain has declared a national state of emergency that may extend well into 2021. The total number of cases on the continent now exceeds 14 million, and hospital systems are stretched near to their breaking point.

Slivers of good news, however, have begun to emerge. Several hard-hit countries may be experiencing the turning of the tide: though infection rates remain elevated, Germany has noted the “first signs” that the curve is flattening, while the virus’ reproduction rate (R0) recently dropped below 1 in France. Even in Belgium, which was recently so badly-off that coronavirus-positive nurses in Liège were asked to continue working as long as they were asymptomatic, the situation is slowly stabilizing after daily new infections dropped by 40 percent week-on-week.

With the approaching holiday season heightening pressure on policymakers to re-open economies by the end of the year, ensuring that the right tools are in place will prove essential if a devastating third wave is to be prevented. That said, the roll-out of reliable COVID-19 testing regimes has already proved far more difficult than health authorities may have anticipated, and a persistent onslaught of virus-related scams has thrown a further wrench into public health authorities’ attempts to control the deadly virus’s spread.

One such scandal recently surfaced from within Europe’s decimated travel industry, where a criminal gang was found to be selling fake negative COVID-19 tests to passengers departing from Paris Charles de Gaulle airport amid tighter immigration rules. The counterfeit certificates bore the names of real Parisian medical laboratories, and the scheme was only exposed after a passenger bound for Ethiopia was found to be carrying a false certificate. If Europe is to safely emerge from this latest lockdown, the independent and trustworthy verification of health information will need to be the cornerstone of any new policy.

More secure and more convenient COVID test results

Fortunately, a number of promising high-tech solutions have already popped up. Swiss company SICPA’s CERTUS MyHealthPass, for example, uses an existing blockchain-based technology to allow the universal verification of health credentials, and is currently being trialled to help both maritime crews and airline passengers.

The CERTUS solution will be a particularly welcome development for seafarers, who have struggled to go about their usual duties since the beginning of the pandemic. Many national authorities have questioned the validity of seafarers’ COVID-19 tests and taken an inordinately long time to approve their health documents, leaving seafarers often left stranded onboard months after their scheduled disembarkation. Moreover, the rejection of health and travel documents often prevents potential replacements from boarding these same vessels, damaging the mental wellbeing of the workers in limbo and bringing vital transnational operations to a grinding halt.

The airline industry, unsurprisingly, is wrestling with a similar challenge. Countries are increasingly requiring negative PCR tests for entry—while some are already planning for how to integrate coronavirus vaccination certificates into their border control procedures—but scandals like the false COVID test ring discovered at Charles de Gaulle airport have ratcheted up the need for internationally-recognised procedures like the technological solution offered by MyHealthPass. The scheme is capable of authenticating both paper documents and digital information so as to guarantee the validity of WHO-approved COVID-19 test results. Seafarers, airline staff and international travellers can then carry their authenticated digital health pass on their smartphones, allowing the re-opening of essential international services in the short-term and helping national and local authorities better anticipate and prepare for future outbreaks.

Self-isolation still falling short

In addition to ensuring that easily-verified coronavirus tests & other health information can help open borders and allow normal economic activity to resume as soon as possible, governments should also be using this time to resolve the missing links that have so far caused testing and isolation strategies to fall through. If rapid and widespread COVID-19 testing is finally beginning to take off, bolstered by more accurate blood tests to detect past infection, authorities must also be doing more to encourage—and compensate—populations which may have been exposed to the disease to self-isolate so as to allow these developments to adequately take hold.

In the months since the heady days of summer, a clearer image of Europe’s failures to control the pandemic has indeed begun to emerge. In the UK, where COVID-19 cases have exceeded 1.3 million, less than one-fifth of people who reported coronavirus symptoms complied with national self-isolation regulations, and authorities handed out a paltry handful of fines for quarantine violations when returning from a high-risk area.

Here again, countries with high marks handling the coronavirus outbreak have turned to technological solutions to both ease the burden of complying with self-isolation requirements and ensure compliance with rules in force. Taiwan, for example, has emerged as the international gold standard for COVID-19 control measures. After closing international borders and regulating travel early, Taiwan has successfully maintained a rigorous regime of contact tracing and technology-enhanced quarantine which has helped the island nation keep cases and fatalities low. In particular, the Pacific country adeptly implanted an “electronic fence system”, which uses cell phone location data to ensure that quarantined individuals stay at home. Technology also provided a solution for the practical and mental health concerns of those in quarantine, from offering easy food delivery options to a chatbot developed with popular messaging app LINE.

European authorities failed over the summer to implement the technological solutions they needed to stop a second wave in its tracks. This second round of lockdowns has given them a fresh chance to construct the pillars of a comprehensive and secure strategy for testing and quarantining which could stave off a third wave of the virus.

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Dutch PM condemns lockdown riots as 'criminal violence'

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Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (pictured) on Monday (25 January) condemned riots across the country at the weekend in which demonstrators attacked police and set fires to protest against a night-time curfew to slow the spread of the coronavirus, calling them “criminal violence”, writes .

The police said hundreds of people had been detained after incidents that began on Saturday evening and lasted until the early hours of Monday, including some in which rioters threw rocks and in one case knives at police and burned down a COVID-19 testing station.

“This has nothing to do with protest, this is criminal violence and we will treat it as such,” Rutte told reporters outside his office in The Hague.

Schools and non-essential shops in the Netherlands have been shut since mid-December, following the closure of bars and restaurants two months earlier.

Rutte’s government added the curfew as an additional lockdown measure from Saturday over fears that the British variant of COVID-19 may soon lead to an increase in cases.

There have been 13,540 deaths in the Netherlands from COVID-19 and 944,000 infections.

The police trade union NPB said there could be more protests ahead, as people grow increasingly frustrated with the country’s months-long lockdown.

“We haven’t seen so much violence in 40 years,” union board member Koen Simmers said on television program Nieuwsuur.

Police used water cannon, dogs and officers on horseback to disperse a protest in central Amsterdam on Sunday afternoon. Nearly 200 people, some of them throwing stones and fireworks, were detained in the city.

In the southern city of Eindhoven, looters plundered stores at the train station and set cars and bikes on fire.

When police said the demonstrators were violating the country’s current lockdown rules “they took weapons out of their pockets and immediately attacked the police”, Eindhoven Mayor John Jorritsma said.

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Head of French health regulatory body: COVID situation is 'worrying'

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The COVID-19 situation in France is worrying, the head of the country’s Haute Autorite de Sante (HAS) health regulator told France Inter radio on Monday (25 January), as President Emmanuel Macron’s government considers a new lockdown, write Sudip Kar-Gupta and Dominique Vidalon.

France has the world’s seventh-highest COVID-19 death toll, with more than 73,000 deaths.

“It is a worrying moment. We are looking at the figures, day by day. We need to take measures pretty quickly....but at the same time, not too hastily,” said HAS head Dominique Le Guludec.

Jean-François Delfraissy, head of the scientific council that advises the government on COVID-19, had said on Sunday that France probably needed a third national lockdown, perhaps as early as the February school holidays, because of the circulation of new variants of the virus.

French European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune, when asked about this on French radio on Monday, replied that no firm decision had been taken on the matter.

France is currently in a nationwide 18h to 6h curfew, in a bid to slow down the spread of the virus, but the average number of new infections has increased from 18,000 per day to more than 20,000.

Geoffroy Roux de Bézieux, head of the MEDEF French business lobby group, said he would call on the government to keep as many businesses and schools open as possible in any new lockdown, to protect the economy and help children’s education.

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EU urges AstraZeneca to speed up vaccine deliveries amid 'supply shock'

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The European Union has urged AstraZeneca to find ways to swiftly deliver vaccines after the company announced a large cut in supplies of its COVID-19 shot to the bloc, as news emerged the drugmaker also faced supply problems elsewhere, write and

In a sign of the EU’s frustration - after Pfizer also announced supply delays earlier in January - a senior EU official told Reuters the bloc would in the coming days require pharmaceutical companies to register COVID-19 vaccine exports.

AstraZeneca, which developed its shot with Oxford University, told the EU on Friday it could not meet agreed supply targets up to the end of March, with an EU official involved in the talks telling Reuters that meant a 60% cut to 31 million doses.

“We expect the company to find solutions and to exploit all possible flexibilities to deliver swiftly,” an EU Commission spokesman said, adding the head of the EU executive Ursula von der Leyen had a call earlier on Monday with AstraZeneca’s chief Pascal Soriot to remind him of the firm’s commitments.

A spokesman for AstraZeneca said Soriot told von der Leyen the company was doing everything it could to bring its vaccine to millions of Europeans as soon as possible.

News emerged on Monday that the company faces wider supply problems.

Australia’s Health Minister Greg Hunt told reporters AstraZeneca had advised the country it had experienced “a significant supply shock”, which would cut supplies in March below what was agreed. He did not provide figures.

Thailand’s Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said AstraZeneca would be supplying 150,000 doses instead of the 200,000 planned, and far less than the 1 million shots the country had initially requested.

AstraZeneca declined to comment on global supply issues.

The senior EU official said the bloc had a contractual right to check the company’s books to assess production and deliveries, a move that could imply the EU fears doses being diverted from Europe to other buyers outside the bloc.

AstraZeneca has received an upfront payment of 336 million euros ($409 million) from the EU, another official told Reuters when the 27-nation bloc sealed a supply deal with the company in August for at least 300 million doses - the first signed by the EU to secure COVID-19 shots..

Under advance purchase deals sealed during the pandemic, the EU makes down-payments to companies to secure doses, with the money expected to be mostly used to expand production capacity.

“Initial volumes will be lower than originally anticipated due to reduced yields at a manufacturing site within our European supply chain,” AstraZeneca said on Friday.

The site is a viral vectors factory in Belgium run by the drugmaker’s partner Novasep.

Viral vectors are produced in genetically modified living cells that have to be nurtured in bioreactors. The complex procedure requires fine-tuning of various inputs and variables to arrive at consistently high yields.

“The flimsy justification that there are difficulties in the EU supply chain but not elsewhere does not hold water, as it is of course no problem to get the vaccine from the UK to the continent,” said EU lawmaker Peter Liese, who is from the same party as German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The EU called a meeting with AstraZeneca after Friday’s (22 January) announcement to seek further clarification. The meeting started at 1230 CET on Monday.

The EU official involved in the talks with AstraZeneca said expectations were not high for the meeting, in which the company will be asked to better explain the delays.

Earlier in January, Pfizer, which is currently the largest supplier of COVID-19 vaccines to the EU, announced delays of nearly a month to its shipments, but hours later revised this to say the delays would last only a week.

EU contracts with vaccine makers are confidential, but the EU official involved in the talks did not rule out penalties for AstraZeneca, given the large revision to its commitments. However, the source did not elaborate on what could trigger the penalties. “We are not there yet,” the official added.

“AstraZeneca has been contractually obligated to produce since as early as October and they are apparently delivering to other parts of the world, including the UK without delay,” Liese said.

AstraZeneca’s vaccine is expected to be approved for use in the EU on Jan. 29, with first deliveries expected from 15 February.

($1 = €0.8214)

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