The Irish Times view on the EU’s Covid-19 response: coordination is essential

Brussels must retake the initiative if Europe is to meet the challenge posed by new strains of the disease

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a media conference after a signing of the EU Recovery and Resilience Facility document at the European Parliament building in Brussels Friday, Feb. 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during a media conference after a signing of the EU Recovery and Resilience Facility document at the European Parliament building in Brussels Friday, Feb. 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)

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The relatively slow start to the Covid-19 vaccination programme across the European Union has put the European Commission in a defensive posture. Having for weeks faced questions about its handling of the joint procurement of vaccines, the EU’s policy engine room under president Ursula von der Leyen made matters worse for itself when, in the middle of its public row with AstraZeneca over supplies, it briefly signalled it would activate emergency procedures under the Northern Ireland protocol to stop vaccines crossing the Border. While the fallout from that fiasco underlined a frustrating accountability gap within the commission, the institution has at least been commendably upfront in admitting its mistakes. Von der Leyen told the European Parliament last week the EU had been too slow to approve vaccines, too optimistic in its assumptions about production capacity and too confident that producers would deliver in time.

In an attempt to reassert some control over the pandemic response, the commission is expected to publish a new strategy document as early as today. It’s important that it retake the initiative. For all the criticism the institution has taken, it is essential in coordinating the continent’s response. A particular area of focus ought to be the new variants of Covid-19. With evidence that at least one of those strains – one first detected in South Africa – is putting up resistance to certain vaccines, it is important that the mass distribution of any adapted vaccines be built into the EU’s contracts with manufacturers. A common EU approach to genomic sequencing, which would equip states to rapidly identify and quantify the spread of new strains, would make sense. Moreover, the likelihood that those variants will force pharma companies to update their products also suggests the vaccine rollout will be an ongoing, long-term endeavour that outlasts the current crisis. That means the EU must ramp up its internal vaccine production capacities, the limitations of which have been underlined by the experience in the United States, India and elsewhere.

Working with the European Medicines Agency, the commission must ensure the process for approval of any adapted vaccines is kept as short as possible consistent with safety requirements.

While Covid-19 case numbers and hospitalisations are falling in many EU states, the situation will remain dangerous for some time. A significant ramping up of vaccine distribution in April should bring relief for many countries, assuming they can step up to the logistical challenge that will present. But it would be a mistake to think the continent will then be on the home stretch. New variants and the unpredictable course of this disease leave no room for complacency. But we know this much: in a continent as closely inter-connected as this, only a genuinely coordinated response can have a hope of success.

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