1st Oct 2023

EU leaders face Covid-mutations dilemma at summit

  • European Council president Charles Michel at a previous online only summit (Photo: European Union)

EU leaders will look at how to adapt to new Covid-19 variants - as Poland and France plan new restrictions due to new mutations spreading.

On Thursday (25 February), EU heads of government will also discuss - via a videoconference - Covid-19 certificates, travel restrictions, and how to speed up the vaccine roll-out.

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Leaders are expected to say that the EU urgently needs to accelerate the authorisation, production, and distribution of vaccines.

The authorisation of Johnson & Johnson company's Covid-19 vaccine could come mid-March, an EU official said.

"Pressure on the companies [to deliver] is high," said the official, adding that it is a priority that companies that the EU had already signed contracts with stick to their delivery commitments.

"Vaccination and vaccine production is an extremely difficult process, changing a line of the supply chain is complicated, you need a new process, a new material, approve it, make it work," the official added.

The prime ministers of Belgium, Denmark, Lithuania, Poland, and Spain have written to European Council president Charles Michel, who will head the EU leaders' meeting, to urge the boosting of vaccine-production capacities in Europe.

New factories?

"We need to provide the right support to Europe-based producers in case unexpected problems emerge during the production process. Existing production facilities will need to be adapted. New ones will need to be built," they said, arguing that vaccine production should be a strategic issue for the EU.

"We need to make things happen," the PMs warned.

As vaccination figures slowly tick up in EU countries, attention is shifting to adapting vaccines to the new variants of Covid-19.

The EU Commission last week launched a programme to work with researchers, biotech companies, manufacturers, and public authorities in the EU and globally to detect and fight new variants, and develop new adapted vaccines, seed up approval, and production.

"The commission preparing for new vaccines depending on the variants, to be produced by end of the year," said an EU diplomat, adding that it might turn into a flu-like vaccination drive that happens annually.

In light of the new variants, EU leaders will also discuss border restrictions, that have put fresh pressure on the passport-free Schengen zone, and sparked concern over intra-EU trade.

On Wednesday, Poland said it will announce tougher coronavirus restrictions, especially in some regions hit particularly hard by the UK variant of Covid-19.

A third wave, likely caused by the new variants, has also created a surge in infections in Slovakia and Hungary.

France also plans new local restrictions to deal with a worsening Covid-19 situation as it seeks to avoid a new national lockdown.

"We are in an even more difficult context with the arrival of variants," acknowledged an EU diplomat, adding that EU governments often turn to border restrictions as a reflex, and "most convenient" solution.

EU leaders took the decision in January to try to limit the spread of new mutations, with restrictions to non-essential travel.

However, there has been a lack of communication and coordination among member states, creating congestion at some borders.

The commission has written to six member states to warn them that their travel restrictions went "too far."

EU leaders will seek to find a balance between limiting the spread of the mutants and keep the bloc's single market going.

On Friday (26 February), EU leaders will discuss defence and security issues with Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg and discuss the bloc's southern neighbourhood with EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell.

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