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Will coronavirus lead to medicine shortage in EU?

  • Under a German proposal, member states will be able to ask travellers - arriving or in transit - to provide information if they have been in contact with people from affected areas (Photo: Matthias Mueller)

Several member states have urged the European Commission to launch a joint procurement of medical supplies, over fears that the outbreak of the coronavirus could hurt the production of pharmaceuticals in China - leading to possible knock-on medical shortages in the EU.

"We will remain vigilant and if the situation changes we will step up our work," the commissioner for health Stella Kyriakides told EU health ministers at an emergency meeting in Brussels on Thursday (13 February).

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"For the moment, there are no shortages identified in the EU, but the commission is ready to proceed with a joint procurement of protective and medical equipment and to mobilise EU funding instruments," she added.

The Wuhan coronavirus, technically called COVID-19, has been proven to be highly-transmissible among humans, and there is currently no specific treatment, nor vaccine, against it.

According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), as of 13 February 2020, 60,330 laboratory-confirmed cases of coronavirus have been reported worldwide, as well as 1,369 deaths: 1,368 in China and one in the Philippines.

However, Japan also reported on Thursday its first coronavirus fatality, according to Reuters news agency.

Kyriakides stressed that viruses know no borders, but that all member states in the EU had a "good level of preparedness".

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned the virus poses a "grave threat" to the world, with its chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, saying that the world should "wake up and consider this enemy virus as public enemy number one".

'Lack of confidence'

China's Hubei province reported 242 people died from the virus on Wednesday, which is more than twice the number of the previous day and the highest daily toll since the outbreak began in December.

This sudden increase in the numbers has generated a growing lack of confidence in the reporting Chinese authorities.

Only 46 cases have been identified in Europe so far - Germany (16), France (11), UK (nine), Italy (three), Spain (two), Russia (two), Belgium (one), Finland (one), and Sweden (one).

However, the director of the ECDC, Andrea Ammon, stressed that the probability of infection for European citizens is still considered very low.

EU ministers said that early identification of the virus and uniform prevention measures at entry points, such as ports and airports, were key to avoid the spread of the virus.

Following a proposal of Germany, member states, when justified by circumstances, will be able to ask travellers (arriving or in transit) to provide information if they have been in contact with people from affected areas.

Close borders if necessary

When asked whether the EU could close the visa-free Schengen travel area if the situation worsens, Croatian health minister Vili Beros said that in an extraordinary situation, the EU could take extraordinary measures.

"If that means the closing of borders, we shall discuss it,'' he said.

Many counties have implemented travel and trade restrictions to China, but Dutch health minister Bruno Bruin encouraged member states to avoid additional restrictions and any kind of stigma against the Chinese or Asiatic population.

"Measures are being implemented in a variety of ways across the EU, but fragmentation will only make us collectively more vulnerable," Kyriakides warned, calling for a coordinated, coherent and science-based approach across the EU and beyond.

Additionally, the commissioner of economy, Paolo Geniloni, highlighted on Thursday that the uncertainty surrounding the outbreak of the virus could have an impact on the bloc's economy, as it had on the Chinese markets earlier this year.

"The longer it lasts, the higher the likelihood of knock-on effects on economic sentiment and global financing conditions," the economic forecast of the commission warned.

The EU has so far repatriated about 600 European citizens who were in China thanks to flights organised by France, Germany, Italy, and the UK.

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