ing determinedly into the camera, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told a virtual press conference from Belgium — which currently has the highest infection rate in the European Union — that the coronavirus pandemic remains “very serious.”
“We are deeply into the second wave,” said von der Leyen, who is a medical doctor with a background in public health and epidemiology. “And, this time, we face two enemies: the coronavirus and a growing COVID-19 fatigue.” She warned that it would be months at least before the first vaccines were available.
“We cannot let down our guard now,” von der Leyen said. “The situation is very, very serious, but we can slow down the spread of the virus if everyone takes responsibility.” She said that meant “every single one of us, regional and local communities, member states and the European level.”
Von der Leyen also called for better coordination between member states on strategies and measures to curb the spread of the virus, as well as for coordinated quarantine rules. The Commission recommends an EU register of hospital capacity to better organize cross-border patient care. Moreover, though member states have been asked to share COVID-19 data with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, this has not been happening as much as hoped for. The Commission has encouraged member states to agree on standards for travel and contact tracing.
‘Deaths are rising’
The Commission, which is negotiating with pharma companies to purchase hundreds of millions of doses of coronavirus vaccines to distribute across the 27 member states of the European Union, has called on EU governments to draw up national vaccination strategies. “There are many issues to be considered for an effective vaccine deployment,” von der Leyen said. “But on one thing I will be very clear,” she added. “We will not compromise on the safety of vaccines.”
The Belgian microbiologist Peter Piot, the former executive director of UNAIDS and one of the scientists who identified Ebola, attended the press conference as a special adviser on COVID-19 to the president of the European Commission. He said 11 vaccines were currently in clinical trials, but he said that there would be no magic elixir. Piot said it would take a long time before the population achieved sufficient immunity, adding that he was very concerned by polls that suggested that 25% of the EU population might refuse a vaccine. He said he understood that people were suffering from COVID-19 fatigue and were reluctant to follow the guidelines. However, he said, about 60% of people across the EU were wearing masks: Hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved if that rose to 95%.
“Deaths are rising also,” Piot said. “Last week about one-third more deaths than the week before, which means that about 1,000 Europeans die per day from COVID.”
Piot, who contracted the coronavirus at the beginning of the pandemic and suffered from complete exhaustion for months, said he knew what he was talking about. He said he was more optimistic now that that hospital treatment seems to be more effective than it had been at the beginning of the pandemic.
Tough times ahead
At a video summit hosted by European Council President Charles Michel on Thursday, EU heads of state and government will discuss the current situation. Michel said the European Union should conduct more rapid testing for travelers, careworkers and elderly people in care homes. The European Commission has put aside €100 million ($117.5 million) to buy rapid tests, and Michel has said member states should not have to compete for access.
Von der Leyen seemed a little perturbed by a question about why the European Union’s strategy so far had not succeeded. But then she admitted that perhaps member states had been “too fast” to ease certain measures in the summer that had been put in place to curb the spread of the virus. She also pointed out that though hospitals were better equipped than in spring, medical staff were “exhausted,” and it was no surprise that Europe was now witnessing a second wave, which might not even be the last.
The European Commission president concluded on a somber note, saying the cancellation of holiday markets, restricted travel and limited socializing would make for a tough winter. ”
“I think this year’s Christmas will be a different Christmas,” von der Leyen said.