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EU vaccine program struggles to speed up

An healthcare worker walks Wednesday at the infectious ward of the Bulovka hospital in Prague. [Petr David Josek/The Associated Press]
An healthcare worker walks Wednesday at the infectious ward of the Bulovka hospital in Prague. [Petr David Josek/The Associated Press]

BRUSSELS — Two months after its first vaccine shots, the European Union is still struggling to get its COVID-19 inoculation drive up to speed. EU leaders are meeting Thursday to jump-start the process, fearing that new virus variants might spread faster than Europe’s response.

At a video conference, the leaders will look at ways to improve the bloc’s vaccine rollout, as the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, presses pharmaceutical companies to respect the terms of their contracts. Officials also want to try to fast-track vaccine authorizations.

More than 21 million coronavirus cases have been recorded and some 515,000 people have died from it in the EU’s 27 countries, according to the European Centre for Disease Protection and Control.

Italy, France, Germany and Spain have the most coronavirus deaths in the EU, although all trail non-EU member Britain, which has Europe’s highest virus death toll at over 121,000.

Given the spread of the disease — the Czech prime minister is worried about “a total catastrophe” at overburdened hospitals, Germany fears the impact of new variants, the Netherlands is seeing a rise in cases — there should be little appetite to ease up on travel and other restrictions too soon.

“The epidemiological situation remains serious, and the new variants pose additional challenges. We must therefore uphold tight restrictions while stepping up efforts to accelerate the provision of vaccines,” the leaders will say, according to a draft summit statement seen by The Associated Press.

But public pressure to relax measures is building. The Netherlands has eased some lockdown measures in what Prime Minister Mark Rutte called a calculated risk to make the year-long crisis “bearable.” Denmark just allowed high school students to partially return to classes.

In Belgium, Jean-Marc Nollet, head of the francophone Greens party that is part of the ruling coalition, openly said he no longer followed his own government’s limits on social contacts because “I am a human being and human contact is something vital.”

The leaders will say, however, that the crisis is far from over, especially as vaccine production lags.

“We need to urgently accelerate the authorization, production and distribution of vaccines, as well as vaccination. We also need to enhance our surveillance and detection capacity in order to identify variants as early as possible so as to control their spread,” the draft statement said.

The commission has sealed deals with several companies for well over 2 billion vaccine shots — far more than the EU population of around 450 million — but only three have been authorized: jabs from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca, which all involve two shots over several weeks. In March, the bloc could also authorize the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccine.

But the EU was heavily criticized for taking almost a month longer than Britain to approve the first vaccines and for lagging so far behind in vaccinating its people. The EU leaders’ debate will focus as much on speeding up authorizations as boosting vaccine production rates through new facilities and cutting delivery bottlenecks.

Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic said one way might be to “agree upon legislation to allow for the emergency authorization of vaccines at the EU level. To date, this is only possible at national level.”

And as curfew-weary, mask-wearing European citizens hope for relief — and the prospect of a real summer vacation this year — this summit will also focus on when to ease restrictions and the possibility of a future vaccination certificate so people can travel more conveniently.

Such a certificate has been demanded by southern EU nations that depend heavily on tourism, and they consider it a way to stave off a second disastrous summer season.

An official from an EU nation, who asked not to be identified because the preparations were still ongoing, said talks would also center on ways to dovetail any EU vaccine certificate with similar efforts at the World Health Organization, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the International Air Transport Association.

Still, European travel restrictions don’t look like they will be easing anytime soon. Belgium, home to the EU’s institutions, has a ban on all nonessential travel that could remain through March. The country has been criticized by some neighbors for what they see as a disproportionate use of border controls.

“For the time being, nonessential travel needs to be restricted,” the leaders say in their draft statement, which still could be modified. But they add “the unhindered flow of goods and services within the single market must be ensured.”

With leaders conscious that the pandemic will not end unless it’s defeated everywhere, summit talks will also touch on getting vaccines to other countries in need, notably in Africa, through the U.N.-backed COVAX program.

Related Photos
<strong>A man walks across the medieval Charles Bridge in Prague, Czech Republic, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. The Czech government has decided to further tighten restrictive measures amid a surge of a highly contagious coronavirus variant in one of the hardest-hit European Union's nations. At the same time, the worsening situation has forced the Cabinet to abandon for now its plans to reopen all stores. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)</strong>

A man walks across the medieval Charles Bridge in Prague, Czech Republic, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. The Czech government has decided to further tighten restrictive measures amid a surge of a highly contagious coronavirus variant in one of the hardest-hit European Union's nations. At the same...

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-0db2a765d16d46c121cc858dce06ac55.jpg" alt="Photo - A man walks across the medieval Charles Bridge in Prague, Czech Republic, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. The Czech government has decided to further tighten restrictive measures amid a surge of a highly contagious coronavirus variant in one of the hardest-hit European Union's nations. At the same time, the worsening situation has forced the Cabinet to abandon for now its plans to reopen all stores. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek) " title=" A man walks across the medieval Charles Bridge in Prague, Czech Republic, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. The Czech government has decided to further tighten restrictive measures amid a surge of a highly contagious coronavirus variant in one of the hardest-hit European Union's nations. At the same time, the worsening situation has forced the Cabinet to abandon for now its plans to reopen all stores. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek) "><figcaption> A man walks across the medieval Charles Bridge in Prague, Czech Republic, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. The Czech government has decided to further tighten restrictive measures amid a surge of a highly contagious coronavirus variant in one of the hardest-hit European Union's nations. At the same time, the worsening situation has forced the Cabinet to abandon for now its plans to reopen all stores. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek) </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-26071b8430a79ac1245d11374fa62020.jpg" alt="Photo - FILE - In this Friday, Feb. 19, 2021 file photo, A logistics officer, right, and a vaccinator, left, prepare to administer an injection of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine to a woman at the Vaccine Village in Antwerp, Belgium. The government on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021 presented scientific projections of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in Belgium, indicating it would be very risky to extensively loosen the current restrictions over the coming weeks. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File) " title=" FILE - In this Friday, Feb. 19, 2021 file photo, A logistics officer, right, and a vaccinator, left, prepare to administer an injection of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine to a woman at the Vaccine Village in Antwerp, Belgium. The government on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021 presented scientific projections of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in Belgium, indicating it would be very risky to extensively loosen the current restrictions over the coming weeks. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File) "><figcaption> FILE - In this Friday, Feb. 19, 2021 file photo, A logistics officer, right, and a vaccinator, left, prepare to administer an injection of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine to a woman at the Vaccine Village in Antwerp, Belgium. The government on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021 presented scientific projections of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in Belgium, indicating it would be very risky to extensively loosen the current restrictions over the coming weeks. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File) </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-a3679ee16323768522d9fcc507572092.jpg" alt="Photo - European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic removes his protective face mask prior to speaking during a media conference, after a General Affairs Council meeting, at the European Council building in Brussels, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. (John Thys, Pool via AP) " title=" European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic removes his protective face mask prior to speaking during a media conference, after a General Affairs Council meeting, at the European Council building in Brussels, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. (John Thys, Pool via AP) "><figcaption> European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic removes his protective face mask prior to speaking during a media conference, after a General Affairs Council meeting, at the European Council building in Brussels, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. (John Thys, Pool via AP) </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-e5465cbf9da768c581507d7339ac7f41.jpg" alt="Photo - Belgium's Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, center, attends a media conference with Belgium's virologist Steven Van Gucht and Dr. Yves Van Laethem at the prime minister's office in Brussels, Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. The government on Monday presented scientific projections of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in Belgium, indicating it would be very risky to extensively loosen the current restrictions over the coming weeks. (Philip Reynaers, Pool via AP) " title=" Belgium's Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, center, attends a media conference with Belgium's virologist Steven Van Gucht and Dr. Yves Van Laethem at the prime minister's office in Brussels, Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. The government on Monday presented scientific projections of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in Belgium, indicating it would be very risky to extensively loosen the current restrictions over the coming weeks. (Philip Reynaers, Pool via AP) "><figcaption> Belgium's Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, center, attends a media conference with Belgium's virologist Steven Van Gucht and Dr. Yves Van Laethem at the prime minister's office in Brussels, Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. The government on Monday presented scientific projections of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in Belgium, indicating it would be very risky to extensively loosen the current restrictions over the coming weeks. (Philip Reynaers, Pool via AP) </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-caaaddbb7250b4e94c1b8c0a8d40757f.jpg" alt="Photo - German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, talks to German Health Minister Jens Spahn, as she arrives for the weeekly cabinet meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. (Kay Nietfeld/dpa via AP, Pool) " title=" German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, talks to German Health Minister Jens Spahn, as she arrives for the weeekly cabinet meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. (Kay Nietfeld/dpa via AP, Pool) "><figcaption> German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, talks to German Health Minister Jens Spahn, as she arrives for the weeekly cabinet meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. (Kay Nietfeld/dpa via AP, Pool) </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-c708898617da4aa03cfa83d37c2e2a61.jpg" alt="Photo - Belgium's Queen Mathilde, left, and pharmacy workers right, wear protective face masks to protect against the coronavirus, COVID-19, during an official visit to the Haelvoet Pharmacy in Brussels, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. (Yves Herman, Pool via AP) " title=" Belgium's Queen Mathilde, left, and pharmacy workers right, wear protective face masks to protect against the coronavirus, COVID-19, during an official visit to the Haelvoet Pharmacy in Brussels, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. (Yves Herman, Pool via AP) "><figcaption> Belgium's Queen Mathilde, left, and pharmacy workers right, wear protective face masks to protect against the coronavirus, COVID-19, during an official visit to the Haelvoet Pharmacy in Brussels, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. (Yves Herman, Pool via AP) </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-020a85e4c57c51ecaa7e2dd4025274ef.jpg" alt="Photo - Belgium's King Philippe, center right, Queen Mathilde, center left, and pharmacy officials wear protective face masks to protect against the coronavirus, COVID-19, during an official visit to the Haelvoet Pharmacy in Brussels, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. (Yves Herman, Pool via AP) " title=" Belgium's King Philippe, center right, Queen Mathilde, center left, and pharmacy officials wear protective face masks to protect against the coronavirus, COVID-19, during an official visit to the Haelvoet Pharmacy in Brussels, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. (Yves Herman, Pool via AP) "><figcaption> Belgium's King Philippe, center right, Queen Mathilde, center left, and pharmacy officials wear protective face masks to protect against the coronavirus, COVID-19, during an official visit to the Haelvoet Pharmacy in Brussels, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. (Yves Herman, Pool via AP) </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-dc629835afc1561594f8cfbe60b4b860.jpg" alt="Photo - An healthcare worker walks Wednesday at the infectious ward of the Bulovka hospital in Prague. [Petr David Josek/The Associated Press] " title=" An healthcare worker walks Wednesday at the infectious ward of the Bulovka hospital in Prague. [Petr David Josek/The Associated Press] "><figcaption> An healthcare worker walks Wednesday at the infectious ward of the Bulovka hospital in Prague. [Petr David Josek/The Associated Press] </figcaption></figure>
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