Worried about a new wave of hospitalizations and deaths in the coming months, European Union leaders assessed more measures to counter the spread of coronavirus variants during a video summit Thursday.
Expressing great concern about the virus’ mutations, the 27 leaders looked at further border restrictions like limits on all non-essential travel, better tracking of mutations and improving coordination of lockdowns, anxious another surge of deaths across the EU was imminent.
Some 400,000 EU citizens have died from COVID-19-related causes since the start of the pandemic.
In a study published just before the summit, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control warned of the high dangers of the new variants, like those initiating in Britain, Brazil and South Africa, and Andrea Ammon, head of the ECDC, 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.
The EU’s executive Commission believes that the health situation is at a critical point and has 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.
The EU Commission said 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.
Member states unanimously agreed Thursday on a common framework for the use of rapid antigen tests and the mutual recognition of PCR test results across the bloc of 450 million inhabitants, in a bid to facilitate cross-border movement, tracing of the virus and treatment.
"This is a central tool to help mitigate the spread of the virus and contribute to the smooth functioning of the internal market," the EU Council said in a statement.