Rapid EU action against Omicron, but patents stay
For the first time ever, EU governments triggered an emergency break to stop travel from southern Africa on Friday, as panic over the new Omicron strain of the coronavirus – first discovered in South Africa – flashed across the world and countries tightened up restrictions.
In what was the first exhibition of effective coordination since the pandemic started, it took EU countries just hours to shut the borders for people travelling from South Africa and a host of other countries in the region such as Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
While the decision to stop the Omicron from spreading was in line with advice from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), cases had already been spotted in the Netherlands, Italy, Denmark and Belgium.
The new strain could be more contagious, carry a higher risk of reinfection and might be able to duck the protection offered by the vaccine, ECDC has said. Omicron “is the most divergent variant that has been detected in significant numbers during the pandemic so far,” it said.
Nevertheless, most cases in South Africa only showed mild symptoms, according to local medical authorities – so maybe things aren’t all that bad.
Health bodies are closely monitoring the spread of Omicron on both continents. On Tuesday, Omicron will no doubt be on the agenda when the head of the European Medicine Agency, Emer Cook, meets with the European Parliament. Other than that, they are scheduled to talk about the vaccination campaign, the use of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for children and booster shots.
Manufacturers should adapt the vaccine immediately to new variants as they emerge, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Friday.
As the virus flares up again in a fourth wave of the pandemic, countries across Europe are wearily reimposing lock-downs. The Netherlands and Belgium are forcing bars, restaurants and shops to close earlier. Austria has imposed a new lockdown. The measures also hit medical authorities themselves: a meeting of the World Trade Organization could not go through because of travel restrictions in Switzerland. The gathering was meant to address a call from India, South Africa and other developing countries to waive intellectual property rights for vaccines so that they too could start producing them.
Cynically, the US and the EU are opposing that bid. The EU praises itself for being the biggest exporter of vaccines, providing not only for its own needs, but also for much of the rest of the world. Lifting patents would not be enough to end vaccine supply bottlenecks, the 27 countries argue. But that view flies in the face of a long-standing warning from the World Health Organisation that as long as only a few lucky - and rich - countries can fully vaccinate their population, the pandemic will keep coming back. The South African travel bans look like a particularly sick joke, given that Johannesburg was one of the driving forces behind the lifting of patent rights.
While the WTO meeting was cancelled, the World Health Organization on Monday will kick off negotiations for a future pandemic treaty, meant to improve coordination in preparing and responding to any future pandemics. and response. European Council President Charles Michel and Von der Leyen will be there. Inevitably, vaccine inequality will come up.
What the Eurocrat will also be watching:
A new migration crisis is in the making. Interior ministers of France, Belgium and the Netherlands held an emergency meeting on Sunday after 27 people drowned trying to reach the UK from France. Thousands of refugees have been camping in the sea town of Calais for years, trying to cross by often unsafe boats or by jumping on lorries driving to the UK.
The deaths have become yet another friction point between France and the UK, with French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin’s arguing the UK should make itself “less attractive” for migrants the latest insult. And while the two sides negotiate, a Frontex plane will now start monitoring the situation.