Mandatory vaccination against Covid-19 is something that needs to be discussed, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has said as countries tighten travel restrictions and urge booster jabs to cope with the spread of the new Omicron variant.
Early indications suggest that the mutation may be significantly more contagious as it now accounts for 75 per cent of cases in South Africa four weeks since it was first detected there, and several governments have scrambled to speed up booster shots and tighten travel restrictions to slow its spread.
The comments by the commission chief follow reports by German media that incoming chancellor Olaf Scholz favours mandatory vaccinations, an approach taken by neighbouring Austria where the government has said inoculations will be obligatory by February.
Several European countries have introduced profession-based vaccination mandates, including Italy, France, and Greece, in a bid to increase the percentage of the population protected against Covid-19 and bring down deaths and hospitalisations from the disease.
Ms von der Leyen, who is a licensed physician and worked as a doctor before becoming a politician, told journalists that it was “understandable” that this policy choice is discussed.
“If you’re asking what my personal position is, two or three years ago I’d never have thought to witness what we see right now, that we have this horrible pandemic, we have vaccines, the life-saving vaccines, but they are not being used adequately everywhere,” she said.
“I think it is understandable and appropriate to lead this discussion now, how we can encourage and potentially think about mandatory vaccination within the EU,” she added.
“This needs discussion. This needs a common approach but it is a discussion that I think has to be led.”
The overall EU vaccination rate among its whole population is 66.2 per cent, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, and hospitals in several countries are struggling to cope with the number of people falling seriously ill and dying with the disease.
Regarding the new Omicron variant, Ms von der Leyen said that scientists were studying it to understand whether changes to its spike protein will mean it is better at evading the antibodies produced by vaccines.
“We know enough to be concerned,” she said. “What science tells us already is that full vaccination and boosters provide the strongest protection against Covid that is available now.”
The vaccine company BioNTech, which produces the most commonly-used vaccine in Ireland alongside pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, has said that it will take about two weeks to establish the effectiveness of vaccines against the variant.
If its vaccine needs to be updated, it could be developed in time for the first batches to arrive in about 100 days, the company estimated.
Some 360 million doses of vaccines are due to be delivered to the EU by the end of the first quarter of 2022 under current contracts with Pfizer and Moderna, Ms von der Leyen said, "sufficient for all fully-vaccinated Europeans to get a boost".
Covid-19 vaccines for children produced by Pfizer, which were approved for ages 5 to 11 by the European Medicines Agency last month, will arrive sooner than expected following discussions with the company, she added.
“Children’s vaccines will be available as of December 13th,” she told journalists, ahead of the previously expected arrival time of towards the end of the month.
In the meantime, the European Commission has recommended the daily review of travel rules, rapid reaction in case of Omicron clusters, and a swift rollout of booster jabs for all.
In Portugal, prime minister Antonio Costa has warned that while he hopes restrictions at Christmas will not be needed, “if they become necessary, we will take these measures”.