Sunday

7th Mar 2021

Analysis

How the EU's virus-alert agency failed

Two months before Europe was declared the epicentre of the pandemic, the EU agency meant to sound the alarm of viral infections was painting a rosy picture.

"Even if there are still many things unknown about 2019-nCoV [coronavirus], European countries have the necessary capacities to prevent and control an outbreak as soon as cases are detected," it reported on 25 January.

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Also known as the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), the agency's core mission is to identify, assess and communicate current and emerging threats to human health posed by infectious diseases.

Some 280 people work at the Stockholm-based agency, whose budget for 2019 was just under €60m, and whose advice feeds into EU and national responses.

By then the virus had broken out from China, into Australia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand.

When France announced its first confirmed cases in late January, the ECDC maintained its analysis.

It said the French detections was in fact "proof of high level of preparedness to prevent and control possible infections of 2019-nCoV."

By the end of the March, France had declared war on the virus.

In a televised address, French president Emmanuel Macron announced a call to arms, telling viewers that "we are at war".

Macron repeated the phrase six times in a span of 20 minutes.

The pandemic was already raging through northern Italy, where some 1.2m people in the Lombardy region had gone into lockdown.

Missing 200 million face masks

Then the European Commission made a startling announcement.

Speaking to a near empty chamber of MEPs in Brussels on 27 March, it highlighted the massive lack of medical equipment needed to fight the pandemic that had already killed thousands in the EU.

Maros Šefčovič, the Europe Commissioner in charge of "inter-institutional relations and foresight", told MEPs that 200 million face masks and 30 million respirators would be needed "weekly for at least 3 months".

The European Commission was unable to verify if those figures were indeed correct, and Šefčovič may have fumbled.

But the whole saga points to a system of surveillance by an ECDC whose core mission relies on input from various sources that appear dubious to begin with.

Steven Blockmans, an expert at the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies, told EUobserver last month, the ECDC had essentially failed in its duties.

"I mean this is officially the EU agency aimed at strengthening Europe's defences against infectious diseases and yet it didn't give any advance warning to this crisis," he said.

Mixed messages

In an email to this website, the ECDC defended its 25 January statement.

It said their risk assessment had in fact been based on the best evidence currently available at the time.

Although it communicates with the network of national contact points in each member state, the agency did not say where that evidence was sourced.

Instead, it said their analysis at the time indicated that prevention and control of Covid-19 was feasible.

However, at the same time, it appears to hold two contradictory positions.

On one hand, it says EU member states have well-equipped laboratories. On other it says there are shortages.

"Whilst a robust network of well-equipped laboratories exists across EU countries, according to the last survey at the beginning of March, laboratories have expressed shortages of test kits, reagents, PPEs and personnel on account of the large surge in demand," it told this website.

The mixed message and the timeline of events appears to throw doubt on their analysis.

The person who first tried to sound the alarm in December had in fact been arrested by Chinese authorities.

Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital, tried to warn others of the outbreak, telling them to wear protective clothing to avoid infection. He was one of eight people police investigated for "spreading rumours".

A day after his message went public, China announced to the world that a cluster of confirmed cases of pneumonia had surfaced in Wuhan, Hubei Province.

Soon afterwards, in January, the World Health Organisation (WHO) claimed there was "no or limited human-to-human transmission".

That message was repeated by the ECDC.

"As of 16 January 2020, there is no clear indication of sustained human-to-human transmission," it said.

Less than a month later, Li Wenliang died. He had been infected by Covid-19.

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