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COVID-19

MEPs set out their conditions for an ‘EU COVID-19 Certificate’

Catherine Feore

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Today (29 April), Parliament adopted its negotiating position on the proposal for what the Commission describes as a ‘Digital Green Certificate’ and what the Parliament prefers to call a ‘EU COVID-19 certificate’ to reaffirm the right to free movement in Europe during the pandemic.

MEPs insist that the documents should be available in digital or paper format and should be in place for twelve months but not longer. 

Having agreed their position, and fast-tracked the process by voting this week, both Parliament and Council are ready to begin negotiations. The aim is to reach an agreement ahead of the summer holidays.

Freedom of movement

Following the vote in plenary, Juan Fernando López Aguilar MEP (S&D, ES), chairman of the Civil Liberties Committee and rapporteur, said: “We need to put in place the EU COVID-19 Certificate to re-establish people’s confidence in Schengen while we continue to fight against the pandemic. Member states must co-ordinate their response in a safe manner and ensure the free movement of citizens within the EU.”

Free

MEPs stress that, in order to avoid discrimination against those not vaccinated and for economic reasons, EU countries should “ensure universal, accessible, timely and free of charge testing”.

López Aguilar said: “The certificate and the tests need to be free of charge. They cannot have a prohibitive price. It's a mandatory test. It can't be so expensive!”

No additional travel restrictions

MEPs say once a citizen gains an EU COVID-19 certificate they should not be subject to additional travel restrictions, such as quarantine, self-isolation or testing. The Parliament wants to ensure that the EU certificate is part of a common framework. 

Sophie In’t Veld MEP believed that this will be one of the most difficult questions in the negotiations with the Council: “What is the point of having a common European scheme if the member states can ignore the certificate and impose additional restrictions when they want to? Do you really think the citizens are waiting for a debate about subsidiarity now and national competencies? Citizens want their rights, they want their freedom.”

Which vaccines are acceptable?

In the proposal member states must accept vaccination certificates issued in other member states for persons inoculated with a vaccine authorised for use in the EU by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) (currently Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Janssen), MEPs say. It will be up to the member states to decide whether they also accept vaccination certificates issued in other member states for vaccines listed by the World Health Organization for emergency use. 

Data protection safeguards

The certificates will be verified to prevent fraud and forgery, as will the authenticity of the electronic seals included in the document. Personal data obtained from the certificates cannot be stored in destination member states and there will be no central database established at EU level. The list of entities that will process and receive data will be public so that citizens can exercise their data protection rights under the General Data Protection Regulation.

In’t Veld said: “Trust in the certificate is key for the take up, therefore the temporary nature protected by a sunset clause, data protection clauses, clauses that prevent function creep, are essential.”

Affordable vaccines allocated globally

Finally, MEPs underline that COVID-19 vaccines need to be produced at scale, priced affordably and allocated globally. They also voice concern about the serious problems caused by companies not complying with production and delivery schedules.

COVID-19

EU launches new strategy to develop therapeutic treatments for COVID-19

Catherine Feore

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European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety stella kyriakides

The European Commission has today (6 May) launched a strategy on COVID-19 therapeutics, including those for the treatment of ‘long COVID'. The strategy covers the full lifecycle of medicines: from research, development and manufacturing to procurement and deployment.

The Strategy’s target is to authorize three new therapeutics treatments for COVID-19 by October 2021 and possibly two further medicines by end of the year. 

Health and Food Safety Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said: “Vaccinations save lives, but they cannot yet eradicate COVID-19. We need a strong push on treatments to limit the need for hospitalisation, speed up recovery times, and reduce mortality. Patients in Europe and across the world should have access to world-class COVID-19 medicines. This is why we have set a very clear goal: by October, we will develop and authorise three new effective COVID-19 therapeutics that can have the potential to change the course of the disease. We will do so by investing in research and innovation, the identification of new promising medicines, ramping up production capacity and supporting equitable access. Our Therapeutics Strategy is a strong European Health Union in action.”

A ‘therapeutics innovation booster' will be set up by July 2021 to support the most promising therapeutics from preclinical research to market authorization. Funds will be used to help countries set up and expedite clinical trials that meet the European Medicine Agency’s high standards. It is hoped that ten potential COVID-19 therapeutics and identify five of the most promising ones by June 2021.

The EU will also organize matchmaking events for industrial actors involved in therapeutics to ensure enough production capacity and swift manufacturing. 

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US supports WTO waiver of Intellectual Property on COVID-19 vaccines

Catherine Feore

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In a surprise announcement by the US Trade Representative Katherine Tai has announced that the US supports the waiver of IP protections on COVID-19 vaccines to help end the pandemic and will “actively participate in WTO negotiations to make this happen”.

The USTR said that extraordinary times and circumstances called for extraordinary measures. 

In March, European Commission trade spokesperson Miriam Garcia Ferrer told journalists that the current view of the European Union was that the problem of access to vaccines would not be resolved by waiving patent rights. 

Garcia Ferrer said that the real problem lay in insufficient manufacturing capacity to produce the required quantities. The European Commission very much welcomed the statement of WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who has said there should be a third way to broaden access to vaccines through facilitating technology transfer within the multilateral rules, to encourage research and innovation while at the same time allowing licensing agreements that helped to scale up manufacturing capacities. 

This morning European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted: "We are open to discuss any other effective and pragmatic solution. In this context we are ready to assess how the US proposal could help achieve that objective."

South African/Indian proposal

WTO members recently debated the proposal submitted by South Africa and India calling for a waiver from certain provisions of the TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) Agreement in relation to the “prevention, containment or treatment” of COVID-19. Since its submission, the proposal has received further support from Kenya, Eswatini, Mozambique, Pakistan, Bolivia, Venezuela, Mongolia, Zimbabwe, Egypt and the African Group within the WTO. 

The proponents argue that the waiving of certain obligations under the agreement would facilitate access to affordable medical products and the scaling-up of manufacturing and supply of essential medical products, until widespread vaccination is in place and the majority of the world’s population is immune. 

However, there is a lack of consensus and divergence on what role intellectual property plays in achieving the goal of providing timely and secure access to safe, efficacious and affordable vaccines to all. Proponents argue that existing vaccine manufacturing capacities in the developing world remained unutilized because of IP barriers. Other delegations asked for concrete examples of where IP would pose a barrier that could not be addressed by existing TRIPS flexibilities.

The outgoing chair of the TRIPS Council, Ambassador Xolelwa Mlumbi-Peter of South Africa, said swift action is urgently required to help scale up COVID-19 vaccine production and distribution. She called on members to shift gears and move towards a solution-oriented discussion.

The next regular TRIPS Council meeting is scheduled for 8-9 June, but members agreed to consider additional meetings in April in order to assess potential progress on the IP waiver discussion.

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COVID-19

Europe puts forward plan to reopen tourism to countries outside the EU

Catherine Feore

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The European Commission has put forward a proposal on reopening non-essential travel from outside the EU. Tourism is one of the sectors that has been most hit by the pandemic and there is pressure from countries such as Greece, Cyprus and Spain to re-open as quickly as possible with the EU and to valuable markets outside the EU, like the British and Israelis.

In March, the EU outlined its approach to Europe's safe re-opening and agreed to keep the temporary restriction on non-essential travel into the EU under close review, and to propose amendments in line with relevant developments. The approach outlined reflects the latest scientific advice showing that vaccination considerably helps to break the transmission chain of the disease.

In parallel to preparing for the resumption of international travel for vaccinated travellers, the Commission proposed a ‘Digital Green Certificate’, showing proof that a person has been vaccinated against COVID-19, received a negative test result or recovered from COVID-19, to help facilitate safe and free movement inside the EU. This proposal also provides the basis for recognizing non-EU countries' vaccination certificates.

The Commission is proposing to allow entry to the EU for non-essential reasons, not only for all persons coming from countries with a good epidemiological situation, but also all people who have been fully vaccinated with an EU-authorised vaccine. This could be extended to vaccines having completed the WHO emergency use-listing process.

To reassure some EU countries, the European Commission is also proposing an ‘emergency brake' mechanism, to be co-ordinated at EU level that would allow states to act quickly and temporarily limit to a strict minimum all travel from any countries affected by any variant of the virus which raises concern. 

The Council will take into consideration whether the third countries are also offering reciprocal measures for EU travellers.

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