European Union leaders will meet on Thursday to try to speed up the production and rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in a race against the emergence of new variants that some fear could bring a third wave of the pandemic across the continent. They will also consider how to strike the right balance between restrictions to stop the spread of infections and keeping borders open for a smooth flow of goods and services across the single market.
“The pressure on everyone is maximum now,” said an EU official ahead of the videoconference of the 27 leaders that starts at 1400 GMT. “This virus does not care about borders, so if we do not coordinate we won’t get out of this together.”
Although infection rates are heading down in about 20 of the bloc’s member states, there are concerns of fresh spikes as a U.K. variant spreads to become the dominant strain. Sweden said on Wednesday it would reduce opening hours for all restaurants, bars and cafes as well as tighten limits on the number of people allowed in shops as it seeks to ward off a third wave.
The Czech government was due on Thursday to impose tougher restrictions after Prime Minister Andrej Babis warned that hospitals faced “catastrophe” if no action is taken. And in France, where infection rates are heading higher again, the government has ordered a lockdown in the Dunkirk area and signalled that new curbs might be introduced elsewhere.
The executive EU Commission and EU member states themselves have come under fire for missteps in their joint vaccine procurement programme and a stuttering rollout of shots that has lagged badly behind Israel, Britain and the United States.
The European Commission has said supply bottlenecks that hampered the launch of vaccination programmes will soon clear, but member states want assurances that the delivery of shots will be smoother and that new vaccines can be produced quickly to cope with new variants.
“We urgently need to integrate and strategically steer our vaccine production capacities in Europe,” the leaders of five EU countries said in a joint letter ahead of the summit. “The approach should reflect that we cannot afford to lose this battle.”
The European Medicines Agency regulator is expected to issue guidelines this week to speed up the approval of vaccines modified for new coronavirus variants. The EU leaders will agree during their meeting to work on certificates of vaccination for citizens who have had an anti-COVID shot, with southern countries that depend heavily on tourism desperate to rescue this summer’s holiday season.
Lockdowns to slow the pandemic caused the deepest-ever economic recession in the bloc last year, hitting the south of the EU particularly hard. However, some countries – such as France and Germany – are wary of EU-wide certificates for those already inoculated as it could create a de facto vaccination obligation and discriminate against those who cannot or will not take a shot.