BRUSSELS — European Union leaders assessed more measures to counter the spread of coronavirus variants during a video summit Thursday as the bloc's top disease control official said urgent action was needed to stave off a new wave of hospitalizations and deaths.
The 27 leaders were looking at further border restrictions, better tracking of mutations and improving coordination of lockdowns, worried that another surge of deaths across the EU was imminent.
The head of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Andrea Ammon, said that "an increasing number of infections will lead to higher hospitalization and death rates across all age groups, particularly for those in older age groups."
In a study published just before the summit, the ECDC warned of the high dangers of the new variants, like those initiating in Britain and South Africa, and Ammon said that "member states are also encouraged to accelerate vaccination of high-risk groups, and prepare the health care system for high demand."
Some EU countries have already strengthened restrictions by imposing stricter curfews and more stringent mask requirements on public transport and in shops. Among the measures the ECDC recommends is a ban on nonessential travel and a speeding up of vaccinations.
In a bid to avoid another wave of panic similar to the one that saw unilateral border closures threaten the flow of goods across the bloc when the coronavirus first hit the continent last spring, the European Commission issued this week a series of recommendations "for a united front to beat COVID-19."
The EU's executive arm believes that the health situation is at a critical point and urged member states to step up the pace of vaccination, to ensure that at least 80% of those over age 80 are vaccinated by March, and that 70% of the adult population across the bloc is protected by the end of the summer.
But since the EU doesn't expect vaccines to be ready for mass distribution before April, leaders should in the meantime find efficient ways to contain the new variants. The commission believes that better tracking the virus' mutations with genomic sequencing, coupled with an increased use of rapid antigen tests, will be crucial.
According to the bloc's executive arm, several EU nations are testing under 1% of samples. It has proposed to "urgently" increase genome sequencing to at least 5% of positive test results and would ideally see that figure reach 10% to detect the variants.
Portugal, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, said that an agreement to "ensure a common approach to the use and validation of rapid antigen tests as well as the mutual recognition of COVID-19 test results across Europe" has been found by all member states and will be approved by leaders.
The coordination of lockdown measures seems trickier, with a myriad of initiatives coming from members states. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned that new border checks might be needed if they don't coordinate.
Merkel said she doesn't expect Thursday's videoconference to produce "conclusive" results, and that EU interior ministers will likely have to talk about practical details. She said it's important to develop "test regimes" for cross-border commuters and that Germany is in touch with its neighbors on that.
"Extensive border controls would be a last resort for us too and (…) we will do a lot to try to prevent that," Merkel told reporters in Berlin. "But they also can't be ruled out completely, if someone has completely different ideas."
Echoing the ECDC advice, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo has proposed a temporary ban on nonessential travel during the February school break and will make a proposal to his counterparts to adopt it across the bloc.
"It is important to be clear that this does not mean that we close the borders," De Croo told local broadcaster RTBF. "Non-essential travel, which we can do without now, such as tourism, clearly we can no longer take that risk."
Discussions will also focus on the disruption of vaccine deliveries after Pfizer last week announced a temporary reduction that has affected all EU countries. The EU has sealed six vaccine contracts for more than 2 billion doses, but only the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have been approved for use so far.
The EU now expects Pfizer to keep the drop in deliveries limited to this week, while resuming full distribution again next week, with the resulting backlog made up during February.
"As from next week, we go again to 100% in doses," said EU spokesman Stefan De Keersmaecker. "Indeed the deliveries which have to take place in the context of quarter one (of 2021), will also be delivered in the context of quarter one."
Leaders will also weigh a Greek proposal to issue vaccination certificates to ease travel. But with doubts about whether the people vaccinated could still be contagious, and only a small fraction of the EU population already vaccinated, several member states have expressed reservations.