EU leaders consider travel bans, faster vaccine rollout to contain coronavirus variants
By Michael Birnbaum
European leaders, struggling with a slow vaccination effort and fearful that highly contagious coronavirus variants could rapidly overwhelm their medical systems, moved Thursday to begin reimposing border restrictions and to speed the distribution of vaccines - even those not yet been approved for use.
"We are increasingly concerned about different variants of the virus," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told reporters after a virtual summit of European Union leaders, saying that though the bloc intends to keep borders open for trade, it may restrict nonessential travel.
The leaders held back from endorsing a specific plan for borders. But Germany - which as the richest and most populous EU member often drives its discussions - proposed strict, temporary bans on travel to the EU from countries where mutated forms of the coronavirus are already prevalent, including Britain.
The proposal would restrict EU citizens from returning to their home countries if they are currently in an affected country, and would therefore be more stringent than previous border measures.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Thursday that sharp action was necessary in the face of more transmissible strain first identified in Britain.
"I can't stress this strongly enough: We need to slow down the spread of this mutant virus, we mustn't wait until this virus flares up here and is reflected in explosive new numbers," she told reporters before the EU discussion.
"We'd have a stronger wave of the virus, probably stronger than anything we've seen so far."
The leaders also agreed to begin distributing doses of AstraZeneca's coronavirus vaccine across Europe, so rollout can start as soon as that vaccine is approved, possibly around mid-February.
Though Britain is already administering AstraZeneca inoculations, European and U.S. regulators have questioned whether there is enough data to show they are effective among older people.
Until now, the EU has focused on a rapid but by-the-book medical authorization process to build public confidence in the safety of the vaccines. But some countries are pushing the bloc's medical regulator to move faster.
"We are working with other EU countries for the fastest possible, unbureaucratic approval of @AstraZeneca and other vaccines," wrote Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, on Twitter, during the leaders' summit.
The European Commission earlier this week set a goal that 70% of EU residents would be vaccinated by the summer - an ambitious effort that, despite efforts to remain united, may ultimately highlight disparities among member countries.
The pace of vaccinations already has varied sharply among countries, even though they all got access to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines simultaneously. Denmark has administered 3.2 doses for every 100 residents.
The Netherlands has only given out 0.6 doses for the same number.
The 70% goal struck some public health experts as overly aspirational.
In France, "we would need to vaccinate at least twice as fast as now," said Odile Launay, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Paris and a member of the committee advising French authorities on vaccine strategy.
"And the other question: will 70 percent of the population want to get vaccinated?"
Hours before Thursday's meeting, Hungary announced it was breaking with the other 26 members of the EU to authorize both the AstraZeneca and Russian-made Sputnik vaccines within its borders.
The country's national regulator said that it would maintain careful testing of the Sputnik vaccine, but that because the AstraZeneca inoculation was already approved in Britain, no further tests for that one were necessary.
The EU approves vaccines as a bloc, but individual countries can offer emergency authorizations.
The Hungarian move may create pressure on other countries to follow suit, although many EU leaders have said that a unified strategy will be the most effective because it will build the most confidence across the union of 450 million people.
Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.