With COVID-19 infections now leading to fewer hospitalizations and deaths compared with earlier phases of the pandemic, the European Union (EU) and its Member States should take the opportunity to shift to a more sustainable management of COVID-19, with an eye towards preparing for future pandemics, according to a recent communication released by the European Commission (EC).
While the communication emphasized that the COVID-19 pandemic is not over—noting there are still millions of active cases worldwide—the decline in hospitalizations and deaths due to the success the EU Vaccines Strategy and public health measures coupled with the knowledge that summer months have historically brought about lower incidence rates of infection “creates a much-needed window to prepare for possible future pandemic surges.”
The plan, said Stella Kyriakides, commissioner for health and food safety at the European Commission, is to use this time to change how Member States manage the pandemic while also staying ready to react quickly to sudden changes.
“Whilst we look ahead to the coming months with optimism, waning immunity, whether natural or through vaccination, possible winter seasonality, and the continued global circulation of the virus all make it probable that new variants will emerge and spread in the future,” Kyriakides said in a recent speech. “As we have all seen over the last two years, the situation can change quickly. This is why my message today to Member States is a very clear one: we must not lower our guard. How we prepare for the next phase today will determine the course of the pandemic over the coming months and years.”
The transition plan involves continuing to administer COVID-19 vaccines and boosters to citizens of Member States, establishing surveillance systems for COVID-19 and other diseases, focusing on recovering healthcare systems, changing testing strategies and monitoring for new SARS-CoV-2 variants and collaborating to combat misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.
The communication notes there are “large differences in vaccination coverage rates” in EU and European Economic Area (EEA) countries: some countries have nearly 85% of the population vaccinated, while others have less than 50%. Overall, about 64% of adults have received their COVID-19 booster, but there are also approximately 90 million people in the EU who are currently unvaccinated. A global campaign to increase accessibility to COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics is also needed, the report stated.
“While the pandemic’s future course is difficult to predict, one thing is certain: COVID-19 is here to stay,” the authors of the report wrote. “The virus will continue to evolve and the emergence of new variants is highly likely. Our response must be to maintain high levels of readiness for COVID-19 outbreaks and the emergence of new virus variants, and to step up vaccination coverage, with targeted efforts to reach those who are still unvaccinated.”
The EC said it is also supporting the development of next-generation COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics through the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA). “We also need to bring attention to structural issues that are becoming more apparent such as long-COVID, which could affect more than 10% of those having had COVID-19,” Kyriakides said. “[T]his needs to be taken very seriously.”
New testing strategies are needed as some countries begin winding down testing everyone suspected of having COVID-19 to focusing on testing individuals with severe cases and at risk for severe disease. “Instead of mass testing we shift the focus to the most representative cases and obtaining reliable estimates of the intensity of transmission, of the impact of severe disease and on vaccine effectiveness,” Kyriakides explained.
The EC is asking Member States to build sustainable, integrated surveillance systems that will track all acute respiratory illnesses, not just COVID-19. Testing and tracking of diseases would be representative estimates, and there would still be targeting and testing used to identify new SARS-CoV-2 variants and detect their circulation. Member States should also take this time to recover and improve the quality and resilience of healthcare systems, according to the EC communication.
Due to continued misinformation and disinformation surrounding COVID-19 vaccines, EC Member States “have stepped up their communications efforts to provide timely and factual information about the pandemic and the measures taken.” The EC report said Member States should continue to provide clear and consistent messaging on COVID-19 as well as engage communities to learn more about concerns and risk perception.
The report also highlighted the importance of resilient global supply chains during the pandemic and moving forward. The EC has launched “EU FAB,” an initiative to keep mRNA, protein and vector-based vaccine manufacturing capacity in reserve for new health emergencies. In addition, the EU will monitor the global supply chains of “critical medical countermeasures and their input materials,” the report stated.
“[O]ur message today is clear: a great deal has been achieved, but preparedness and structural resilience are key. With this Communication, we will be able to move forward, together with our Member States,” Kyriakides said. “The swift adoption of all European Health Union proposals will further strengthen our capacity to prevent, prepare and respond to health crises.”
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