RPT: REVIEW - EU Council Faced With Divergences On Mutated Virus Strains, Vaccination Passports

RPT: REVIEW - EU Council Faced With Divergences on Mutated Virus Strains, Vaccination Passports

BRUSSELS (UrduPoint News / Sputnik - 22nd January, 2021) The European Council has convened EU leaders for a video conference on Thursday to try to maneuver between diverging demands and interests of 27 member states concerning such issues as COVID-19 vaccination passports, travel regulations amid the spread of mutant strains and the procurement of vaccines.

Coordination at the EU level has not been excellent so far on any of the points.

The rollout of vaccines has been slow. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has only authorized two vaccines so far by US company Moderna and by US-German duo Pfizer/BioNTech. It seems the delays are caused by production difficulties at Pfizer's facilities in Europe. Supplies are much less than initially contracted.

While the authorization of the UK vaccine by AstraZeneca is still pending, the United Kingdom itself appears to set best practices. The UK vaccination campaign is much faster. It started earlier and uses already - after careful examination by the British health authorities - the AstraZeneca vaccine, the third approved after Pfizer and Moderna.

The United Kingdom is even on the verge of launching "vaccination passports," something that the European Union long discussed but has still not acted on due to disagreements between member states. France is against it, while the tourist destination countries, such as Greece and Portugal, are crying for it. Some countries even talk of stopping all travels altogether, even inside the EU, in light of the virus' mutations.

This is the great fear of all politicians and medical experts in charge the rapid penetration of the UK variant, which is believed to be up to 70 percent more contagious. It is already present in thousands of cases in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and more countries.

Mutant virus strains were reported from the United Kingdom, South Africa, Brazil, Japan and other countries. These variants do not kill more people, but the fear is that their higher infectiousness will make them dominant across the densely populated European space and cause a sudden unbearable pressure on hospital capacity.

Adding ridicule to inefficiency, the French government has decided not to label strains "British" or "South African" variants out of political correctness. In order not to hurt feelings, those will now be referred to simply as "variants."

"It is a race against the clock, and mass vaccination is the only solution, to avoid insolvable problems in hospitals. The British variant of the coronavirus is in the country, and it is impossible to estimate the exact number of cases at this time. As a result, Belgium is in phase 4 of its emergency plan the highest level of danger," Marc Van Ranst, a virology expert at the KULeuven University in Belgium and an adviser to the Belgian Federal government, told Sputnik.

According to the virologist, two schools closed down for a week in the Houthulst town in West Flanders as the cases of infection with the UK variant "increased dramatically."

"We should not be naive and believe that we can still contain the British variant in our small country. Most of the positive samples end up in Brussels, but that's because that's where returning travelers are tested, at Brussels airport," Van Ranst said.

"I hope the borders will be closed, to limit the spread. No more traveling, please," the virologist said.

At the same time, Van Ranst stressed the importance of continuing mass testing and precautions, especially during the winter period, which the expert said was favorable for the virus.

On the eve of the summit, ambassadors of 27 EU member states reached an agreement on mutual recognition of COVID-19 antigenic tests, a measure that France defended in particular. To detect coronavirus mutations, the European Commission urges member countries to increase sequencing, as the current level is insufficient, except apparently in Denmark and the United Kingdom.

VACCINATION PASSPORT DIVERGENCIES

In his opening remarks to the conference, European Council President Charles Michel said that the absolute priority of the bloc at the moment was speeding up the vaccination campaign. EU member states began their national vaccination campaigns in sync on December 27, and the collective contracted amount of doses was supposed to be enough to ensure that neither of them lags. If it were not for the delays in supplies.

With that, the European Commission called on member states to speed up vaccination, eyeing to cover 70 percent of adult population by the end of the summer and 80 percent of health workers and seniors aged 80 and older by March.

In a sign of growing impatience, four countries Austria, Greece, the Czech Republic and Denmark have written a letter to Michel asking him to speed up the vaccine approval process by the EMA.

Earlier on Thursday, Hungary approved Russian-made vaccine Sputnik V, which has no EMA certification yet, for emergency use for six months.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, in the meantime, raised the issue of mutual recognition of the vaccinated persons across the bloc. He wrote a letter to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in which he proposed adopting standardized EU certificates that would reflect a person's vaccination record.

"While we are not going to make vaccination compulsory or a prerequisite for travel, persons who have been vaccinated should be free to travel," Mitsotakis wrote, adding that "For countries such as Greece, which are dependent on tourism, it's imperative that this issue is resolved before the summer season."

Von der Leyen has backed the initiative, but said its political and legal aspects required more discussion, specifically with regard to travel and other rights that certificate holders will be granted. The matter is expected to be discussed at the Thursday council.

"The main idea of a vaccination passport is that a vaccinated person does not need to undergo PCR tests or be placed in quarantine," Portuguese member of the European Parliament Claudia Monteiro de Aguia told Sputnik. Portugal is among the countries that endorsed the initiative.

Denmark announced last week plans to implement travel passports this year.

A small start-up, AOKpass, has already forged a partnership with Aeroporti di Roma, the manager of Rome airports, and Italian flagship airline Alitalia to create a certification. The certificate even passed the experimental phase on airlines connecting Singapore and Tokyo and served by Singapore Airlines, as well as between Rome and Atlanta, served by Alitalia.

Yet, linking vaccination passports to travel met strong opposition in France and Belgium. Authorities there consider the discussion of vaccination passports premature, pointing to the currently low proportion of the vaccinated population and warning of possible discrimination against non-vaccinated people.

Authorities in Germany pointed out that the existing vaccines have not yet proven effective against the mutant strains from the United Kingdom and other places. Earlier on Thursday, German Chancellery head Helge Braun said that the country would close its borders if the spread of the UK variant in Europe does not slow down.

"It would be ideal to have the same vaccination pass everywhere in Europe, recognized by all, with a common database," Alain Billiet, a Belgian promoter of My Vaccines digital vaccination record service, told Sputnik.

Billiet said public attitudes toward vaccination in Europe has transformed over the past decades. In the 1950s, the continent was able to get rid of such deadly diseases as polio because vaccination did not draw much criticism in the public, especially with regard to vaccinating children at school against such diseases as measles, rubella and smallpox, which are much more dangerous if contracted in adult age.

"But now, fake news and rumors abound and scare the population in refusing to be vaccinated, though side effects are very limited, as is shown by the millions already vaccinated in the world," Billiet said. "It is essential that governments show a strong will to roll-out the vaccination campaigns to gain enough public support for group immunity. It means that about 60 percent of the population must be vaccinated. If you add those that have been infected by the virus and have developed antibodies, you reach the 70-percent threshold after which the pandemic stops."

Politicians are afraid of antagonizing those in the population who refuse to be vaccinated. There is a fear that they could become second-rate citizens when it comes to traveling and taking a plane, for example.

In France, for example, Jean-Pierre Mas, the president of a union of travel companies, endorsed the implementation of vaccination passports in a letter to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs last week.

Chantal Vandemoortele, a travel agent in Brussels, told Sputnik that the industry expected commercial airlines to make the decision unilaterally and introduce vaccination certificates as a prerequisite of air travel, regardless of what the governments decide.

"If one airline does it, they will all follow. It is a very competitive market," Vandemoortele said.

"The tourist destination countries are also very keen to get that decided in Brussels as soon as possible. Despite reluctance and opposition of some politicians, I am sure the vaccination pass will impose itself. If you go to Sub-Saharan Africa you must be vaccinated against yellow fever, the sleep disease and many others. Why not Covid?" the travel agent said.