BRUSSELS, Belgium (AFP) — The European Union (EU) leaders will grapple Thursday with the threat of new coronavirus variants whose spread risks outpacing the hope that vaccines will put a quickish end to the pandemic in Europe.
The chiefs will hold a summit — by videolink to protect themselves from infection — “to raise political awareness on the seriousness of the situation with the new variants,” an EU official said.
Virus mutations that emerged in Britain, South Africa and Brazil have alarmed EU authorities because of their increased infectivity, prompting bans or restrictions on travelers from those countries.
Yet as those variants are currently a tiny proportion of overall cases in the EU, leaders see it as a race between getting enough jabs into arms before the mutants dominate.
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said the bloc will soon expand vaccines beyond the BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna ones currently authorized to inoculate 70 percent of adults in the EU by the “end of summer” — meaning the end of August.
“This is doable, it is ambitious, but we have to be ambitious — people are waiting for that,” she said Wednesday.
At the same time, the EU heads of state and government must manage expectations in a European population of 450 million.
The vaccination roll-out across the European Union has been disappointingly slow compared with the United States, Israel and other countries, a problem compounded by delivery shortfalls of the BioNTech/Pfizer doses.
There is also a minority, particularly in countries such as France, who hesitate to be inoculated.
And, while many hope the jabs will soon put an end to limited travel, tests, nighttime curfews and home quarantines, EU officials and diplomats warn against Europe lowering its guard too early.
Already, the EU recorded 297,500 more deaths between March and October 2020 compared with the same period in the preceding three years, according to the Eurostat statistics office.
Data from the latest wave that peaked in November/December has not yet been compiled.
While there was no indication as yet the new variants were more deadly, there were concerns they could infect more people and overload hospital intensive care capacity.