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What you need to know about the coronavirus right now

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Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus right now, writes Linda Noakes.

Austria breaks ranks with EU on vaccines

Austria broke ranks with the European Union on Tuesday (2 March) and said it would work together with Israel and Denmark to produce second-generation vaccines against coronavirus mutations.

The announcement is a rebuke to the EU’s joint vaccine procurement programme for member states which has been criticised for being slow to agree deals with manufacturers.

Production problems and supply chain bottlenecks have also slowed deliveries to the bloc, delaying the roll-out of vaccines.

Turkey’s reopening relieves restaurants but worries doctors

Turkish restaurants reopened and many children returned to school on Tuesday after the government announced steps to ease curbs even as cases edged higher, raising concerns in the top medical association.

On Monday evening, President Tayyip Erdogan lifted weekend lockdowns in low- and medium-risk cities and limited lockdowns to Sundays in those deemed higher risk under what he called a “controlled normalization”.

Cafe and restaurant owners, limited to takeaway service for much of last year, have long urged a reopening of in-house dining after sector revenues dropped.

No respite from France’s COVID-19 measures in next 4-6 weeks

France will retain its current measures aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19, including a curfew at night, as a bare minimum for the next four to six weeks, its health minister said on Monday.

Other measures now in force include the closure of bars, restaurants and museums and the minister, Olivier Veran, said he hoped France would not have to go beyond those measures to rein in the disease.

Prime Minister Jean Castex said last week a new lockdown was not on the agenda but that the government would assess this week whether local weekend lockdowns might be needed in 20 areas considered very worrying, including Paris and the surrounding region.

Fauci says US must stick to two-shot strategy

The United States must stick to a two-dose strategy for the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, top U.S. infectious disease official Anthony Fauci told the Washington Post newspaper.

Fauci said that delaying a second dose to inoculate more Americans creates risks.

He warned that shifting to a single-dose strategy for the vaccines could leave people less protected, enable variants to spread and possibly boost skepticism among Americans already hesitant to get the shots.

WHO panel issues strong advice against hydroxychloroquine

The drug hydroxychloroquine, once touted by former US President Donald Trump as a pandemic “game-changer”, should not be used to prevent COVID-19 and has no meaningful effect on patients already infected, a World Health Organization expert panel said on Tuesday.

“The panel considers that this drug is no longer a research priority and that resources should rather be oriented to evaluate other more promising drugs to prevent COVID-19,” they wrote in the BMJ British medical journal.

This “strong recommendation”, the experts said, is based on high-certainty evidence from six randomised controlled trials involving more than 6,000 participants both with and without known exposure to COVID-19.

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Germany wants to use Regeneron's COVID-19 antibody therapy more broadly

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Germany would like to use Regeneron’s COVID-19 monoclonal antibody cocktail as a treatment for this disease more broadly but needs to finalize some details on reimbursement, Health Minister Jens Spahn said on Thursday (15 April), writes Caroline Copley.

“The drug is available in Germany, we need it much more and we want it much more and we are working on rolling it out across the nation,” he told a weekly news conference.

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President von der Leyen on developments in the Vaccines Strategy

EU Reporter Correspondent

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In a press statement on 14 April, President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced an agreement with BioNTech-Pfizer to accelerate the delivery of 50 million vaccine doses to the second quarter of this year, starting this month: “We are in a race against time. The faster we reach our target of having 70% of adults in the European Union vaccinated, the better chances we have of containing the virus. And the good news is: Vaccination is picking up speed across Europe! Member states have received over 126 million doses of vaccines as of yesterday (13 April). And I am happy to say that today we have reached 100 million vaccinations in the EU. This is a milestone that we can be proud of. Of these 100 million vaccinations, more than a quarter are second doses – which means that we have now more than 27 million people fully vaccinated I am pleased to announce that we have reached an agreement with BioNTech-Pfizer to, once again, speed up the delivery of vaccines. 50 million additional doses of BioNTech-Pfizer vaccines will be delivered in quarter 2 of this year, starting in April. This will bring the total doses delivered by BioNTech-Pfizer to 250 million doses in the second quarter. These doses will be distributed pro-rata to the population, among all the member states. This will substantially help consolidate the roll-out of our vaccination campaigns.” As part of preparations for the medium term, the Commission is also entering into a negotiation with BioNTech-Pfizer for a third contract, to foresee the delivery of 1.8 billion doses of vaccine over the period of 2021 to 2023. This contract will entail that not only the production of the vaccines, but also all essential components, will be based in the EU. The President's full statement is available online in English, and French and shortly in German. You can watch it here.

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Coronavirus response: Commission proposes to exempt vital goods and services distributed by the EU from VAT in times of crisis

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The European Commission has proposed to exempt from Value Added Tax (VAT) goods and services made available by the European Commission, EU bodies and agencies to Member States and citizens during times of crisis. This responds to the experience gained  during the course of the Coronavirus pandemic. Among other things, it has shown that the VAT charged on some transactions ends up being a cost factor in procurement operations that strains limited budgets. Therefore, today'sinitiative will maximise the efficiency of EU funds used in the public interest to respond to crises, such as natural disasters and public health emergencies. It will also strengthen EU-level disaster and crisis management bodies, such as those falling under the EU's Health Union and the EU Civil Protection Mechanism.

Once in place, the new measures will allow the Commission and other EU agencies and bodies to import and purchase goods and services VAT-free when those purchases are being distributed during an emergency response in the EU. The recipients might be Member States or third parties, such as national authorities or institutions (for example, a hospital, a national health or disaster response authority). Goods and services covered under the proposed exemption include, for instance:

  • Diagnostic tests and testing materials, and laboratory equipment;
  • personal protective equipment (PPE) like gloves, respirators, masks, gowns, disinfection products and equipment;
  • tents, camp beds, clothing and food;
  • search and rescue equipment, sandbags, life jackets and inflatable boats;
  • antimicrobials and antibiotics, chemical threat antidotes, treatments for radiation injury, antitoxins, iodine tablets;
  • blood products or antibodies;
  • radiation measuring devices, and;
  • development, production and procurement of necessary products, research and innovation activities, strategic stockpiling of products; pharmaceutical licences, quarantine facilities, clinical trials, disinfection of premises, etc.

Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that these kinds of crises are multifaceted  and have a wide-ranging impact on our societies. A rapid and efficient response is essential, and we need to provide the best response now in order to prepare for the future. Today's proposal supports the EU's goal to react to crises and emergencies in the EU. It will also ensure that the financial impact of EU-level relief efforts to fight the pandemic and support the recovery is maximized.”

Next steps

The legislative proposal, which will amend the VAT directive, will now be submitted to the European Parliament for its opinion, and to the Council for adoption.

Member States shall adopt and publish, by 30 April 2021 the laws regulations and administrative provisions necessary to comply with this Directive. They shall apply those measures from 1 January 2021.

Background

The Coronavirus pandemic has thrown into sharp light the importance of coherent, decisive and centralised EU-level preparation and response in times of crisis. In the context of the Coronavirus pandemic, the von der Leyen Commission has already outlined plans to strengthen EU preparedness and management for cross-border health threats, and presented the building blocks of a stronger European Health Union. At the same time, the Commission has proposed to strengthen cooperation between EU Member States through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism with the aim of improving responses to future natural or man-made disasters. For instance, in the context of the new European Health Union, the Commission announced the creation of the Health Emergency Response Authority (HERA) to deploy rapidly the most advanced medical and other measures in the event of a health emergency, by covering the whole value chain from conception to distribution and use.

The EU has already taken action in the field of taxation and customs to support the fight against and the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. In April 2020, the EU agreed to waive customs and VAT charges for imports of masks and other protective equipment needed to fight the pandemic. This waiver remains in place and plans are underway for its extension. In December 2020, EU member states agreed on new measures proposed by the Commission to allow a temporary VAT exemption for vaccines and testing kits being sold to hospitals, doctors and individuals, as well as closely related services. Under the amended Directive, member states can apply either reduced or zero rates to both vaccines and testing kits if they so choose. 

More information

Commission proposes to exempt vital goods and services distributed by the EU in times of crisis

Council directive amending Council Directive 2006/112/EC as regards exemptions on importations and on certain supplies, in respect of Union measures in the public interest

COVID-19 response in the field of taxation and customs

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