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Commission approves €5 million Slovenian public support to compensate the Fraport Slovenija for damages caused by coronavirus outbreak

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The European Commission has approved, under EU state aid rules, a €5 million Slovenian aid measure to compensate Fraport Slovenija, d.o.o., the operator of Jože Pučnik Ljubljana Airport for the damage it suffered due to the coronavirus outbreak. Jože Pučnik Ljubljana Airport is Slovenia's only airport for international scheduled passenger flights. Due to the measures that Slovenia implemented to limit the spread of the virus, all airlines operating at Jože Pučnik Ljubljana Airport had to cease their flight operations on 17 March 2020.

This resulted in high operating losses for the airport. The flight restrictions were gradually lifted by Slovenian authorities as of 12 May 2020 and air traffic operations started resuming on 29 May 2020. However, in the absence of domestic scheduled passenger flights within Slovenia, the airport depended on the lifting of travel restrictions in other countries to start again its operations and thus traffic only started to resume noticeably in July 2020. The aid measure, which will take the form of a direct grant, will allow the Slovenian authorities to compensate the airport for the revenue losses suffered during the period between 17 March and 30 June 2020.

The aid measure includes a claw-back mechanism, whereby any possible public support in excess of the actual damage received by the beneficiary will have to be paid back to the Slovenian state. The risk of the state aid exceeding the damage is therefore excluded. The Commission assessed the measure under Article 107(2)(b) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), which enables the Commission to approve state aid measures granted by member states to compensate specific companies for the damages directly caused by exceptional occurrences, such as the coronavirus outbreak.

The Commission found that the measure will compensate the damage that is directly linked to the coronavirus outbreak. It also found that the measure is proportionate, as the envisaged compensation does not exceed what is necessary to make good the damage. The Commission therefore concluded that the measure is in line with EU state aid rules. More information on actions taken by the Commission to address the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic can be found here. The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under the case number SA.59994 in the state aid register on the Commission's competition website once any confidentiality issues have been resolved.

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Coronavirus disinformation: Online platforms take new actions and call for more players to join the Code of Practice

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The Commission has published the reports by Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Microsoft and Google on measures taken in June to combat coronavirus disinformation. The current signatories and the Commission are also calling on new companies to join the Code of Practice on disinformation as it will help broaden its impact and make it more effective. Values and Transparency Vice President Věra Jourová said: “The COVID-19 disinformation monitoring programme has allowed to keep track of important actions put in place by online platforms. With new variants of the virus spreading and vaccinations continuing at full speed, it is crucial to deliver on the commitments. We look forward to the strengthening of the Code of Practice.”

Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton added: “The EU stood by its promise to deliver enough doses to safely vaccinate every EU citizen. All stakeholders now need to assume their responsibility to beat vaccine hesitancy spurred by disinformation. While we are strengthening the Code of Practice with platforms and signatories, we are calling for new signatories to join the fight against disinformation”. 

For example, TikTok's campaign supporting vaccination, with the Irish government, reached over one million views and over 20,000 likes. Google continued to work with public health authorities to show information about vaccination locations in Google Search and Maps, a feature available in France, Poland, Italy, Ireland, and Switzerland. On Twitter, users can now train automated systems to better identify violations of the platform's COVID-19 disinformation policy.

Microsoft extended its partnership with NewsGuard, an Edge extension that warns about websites spreading disinformation. Facebook cooperated with international health authorities to increase public awareness of vaccine efficacy and safety and with Michigan State University (MSU) researchers to better detect and attribute deepfakes. These joint efforts need to continue in view of the persisting and complex challenges that online disinformation still presents. The Commission's COVID-19 disinformation monitoring programme has been extended until the end of 2021 and reports will now be published every two months. The next set of reports will be published in September. Following the recently published Guidance, the signatories have kicked off the process to strengthen the Code and launched a joint call for interest for potential new signatories.

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Coronavirus: Commission signs contract to procure monoclonal anti-body treatment

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Yesterday (27 July), the Commission signed a joint procurement framework contract with the pharmaceutical company Glaxo Smith Kline for the supply of sotrovimab (VIR-7831), an investigational monoclonal antibody therapy, developed in collaboration with VIR biotechnology. It is part of the first portfolio of five promising therapeutics announced by the Commission in June 2021, and is currently under rolling review by the European Medicines Agency. 16 EU member states are participating in the procurement for the purchase of up to 220,000 treatments. Sotrovimab can be used for the treatment of coronavirus patients with mild symptoms who do not require supplemental oxygen, but who are at high risk for severe COVID-19. Ongoing studies suggest that early treatment can reduce the number of patients that progress to more severe forms and require hospitalisation or admission to the intensive care units.

Health and Food Safety Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said: “We committed in our COVID-19 Therapeutics Strategy to have at least three new therapeutics authorised by October. We are now delivering a second framework contract that brings monoclonal antibodies treatments to patients. Alongside vaccines, safe and effective therapeutics will play a pivotal role in Europe's return to a new normal.”

Monoclonal antibodies are proteins conceived in the laboratory that mimic the immune system's ability to fight the coronavirus. They attach to the spike protein and thus block the virus' attachment to the human cells. The European Commission concluded nearly 200 contracts for different medical countermeasures worth over €12 billion.

Under the current framework contract with Glaxo Smith Kline, member states can purchase sotrovimab (VIR-7831) if and when needed, once it has received either emergency use authorisation in the member state concerned or a (conditional) marketing authorisation at EU level from the European Medicines Agency. Further information can be found here.

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With vaccines lagging, treatments offer key to stemming India’s COVID death toll

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A report by the Washington-based Center for Global Development has revealed that, while official figures set India’s Covid-19 death toll at just over 420,000, the real figure could be up to ten times greater. According to the Center, that would make India the country with the highest coronavirus death toll in the world, far surpassing the United States and Brazil, and would also make the pandemic “arguably India's worst human tragedy since partition and independence", writes Colin Stevens.

Covid-19 deaths have likely been underestimated in Europe as well, with the World Health Organization (WHO) reporting deaths worldwide are likely to be “two to three” times higher than official figures. But in India, four in five deaths were not medically investigated even before the pandemic; now, due to a lack of hospital beds and oxygen, an unknown number of coronavirus sufferers are dying untested and unregistered at home. Widespread social stigma surrounding COVID-19 has compounded this phenomenon, with families often declaring a different cause of death.

While India’s coronavirus infections and deaths have sharply decreased from the peak of the second wave in May, the country has still lost over 16,000 people to Covid since the start of July. Public health experts warn India should brace for a third devastating wave by October, adding urgency to the hunt for tools to help patients who contract severe cases of Covid.

India’s vaccine drive misses targets

Vaccines are the main preventative tool to keep severe infections at bay, and India has already distributed some 430 million doses—more than any other nation after China. Even so, only 6.9% of the Indian population has been fully vaccinated so far, out of a population of 1.4 billion citizens. Since the emergence of the highly contagious Delta variant in October 2020, India’s immunisation drive has been plagued with vaccine shortages, broken supply chains, and vaccine hesitancy.

This month, the WHO announced India will receive 7.5 million doses of the Moderna vaccine via the COVAX facility, but India’s domestic vaccine rollout continues to hit stumbling blocks. Bharat Biotech – who produce the country’s only approved homegrown vaccine, Covaxin – this week projected further delays, making it impossible for India to meet its target of distributing 516 million shots by the end of July.

International disagreement on treatments

With herd immunity still far out of reach, India’s medical services still desperately need effective treatment solutions to help hospitalised patients. Fortunately, life-saving therapeutic options now being tried and tested in Europe could soon offer powerful weapons against the most dangerous infections.

While the number of Covid treatments available are growing as drugs complete clinical trials, global public health bodies are still divided as to which ones are most effective. The only treatment to receive the European Union’s greenlight is Gilead's remdesivir, but the WHO actively advises against that particular antiviral treatment, recommending instead two ‘interleukin-6 receptor blockers’ known as tocilizumab and sarilumab. Tocilizumab has also been proven effective by the wide-ranging RECOVERY trial in the UK, reducing time in hospital and the need for mechanically-assisted breathing.

Despite being a global hub for drug manufacturing, India is not always as quick to approve them. US pharmaceutical company Merck boosted India's manufacturing capacity for the antiviral medicine molnupiravir to help fight the second wave this past April, but local drug trials will not be completed until September at the earliest. In the interim, Indian authorities have awarded emergency approval to a different treatment for Covid-19, 2-DG, despite a lack of published trial data for the molecule.

New treatments like Leukine in the pipeline

This limited set of extant Covid-19 drugs will soon be bolstered by other promising therapies. One such treatment, Partner Therapeutics’ sargramostim – known commercially as Leukine – is currently undergoing testing in both Europe and the United States with a view towards rapid approval. In February, trials led by University Hospital Ghent and bringing together five Belgian hospitals found that Leukine “can significantly improve oxygenation in COVID-19 patients with acute hypoxic respiratory failure,” increasing oxygenation in the majority of patients by at least a third from baseline levels.

After noting Leukine’s potential, the US Department of Defence signed a $35 million contract to fund two Phase 2 clinical trials in order to supplement preliminary data. This past June, the results of the second randomized US trials of inhaled Leukine once again showed positive improvements in the lung functions of patients with the acute hypoxemia caused by severe Covid, confirming the Belgian findings that oxygen levels in patients who had received Leukine were higher than those who did not.

Effective Covid treatments would reduce pressure on Indian healthcare providers not only by improving chances of survival, but also by accelerating recovery times and freeing up hospital beds for other patients, including those dealing with other ailments. Faster treatments would also reduce the dangers posed to patients by contagious conditions such as black fungus, which has already been implicated in the deaths of over 4,300 hospitalised Covid patients in India. Greater clarity and accessibility surrounding treatments would also curb the worrying uptick in Indian families turning to the black market to purchase medical supplies of unknown provenance at hugely inflated prices.

Treatments that improve recovery rates and prevent fatal cases of Covid will remain crucial for as long as most Indians remain unvaccinated. Provided new drugs are approved in a timely manner, improved medical understanding of the virus means new Covid patients should have a better prognosis than ever.

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