EU leaders seek common ground on COVID tests as virus spreads

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EU leaders aim to make progress on common testing and vaccination strategies at a video conference on Thursday and step up coordination in fighting the fast-expanding COVID-19 pandemic, officials said.

The late-afternoon e-meeting is the first of a planned series of video conferences leaders will dedicate in the coming weeks to the health crisis, with one official saying two more may take place before an EU summit scheduled for mid-December.

Appeals for better coordination have become louder amid a resurgence of the epidemic in Europe after a relative lull in the summer months.

Leaders also want to avoid divisions which dogged the 27-nation bloc at the beginning of the pandemic, when countries vied with each other to buy scarce medical equipment.

A robust testing and tracing strategy has been a priority for the EU since the onset of the crisis as countries who did better on that, like Germany, recorded smaller death tolls than others.

But “at the European level, this plan of action has not achieved the desired results”, the chair of the EU summit, Charles Michel, said in a note issued before the video conference.

He will call for more cooperation on buying and developing tests including rapid antigen kits which, albeit less accurate than the standard molecular PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests, could be crucial in identifying clusters of infections more quickly, officials said.

He will also insist, officials said, that EU countries speed up vaccination plans to make sure the first limited doses, should they ever be available, can be distributed quickly to those most in need.

A clear definition of priority groups is crucial as not enough vials of potential effective shots would be available to inoculate the entire EU population of 450 million before 2022, according to EU Commission estimates. 

The European Commission proposed new tax and trade measures on Wednesday to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in the European Union and avoid shortages of goods and medical gear, saying the new rise in infections on the continent was “alarming”.

As Europe again becomes the world’s epicentre of the pandemic, the EU executive urged the 27 EU governments to do more and in a more coordinated fashion to tackle the virus.

“The situation is very serious, but we can still slow down the spread of the virus if everybody takes their responsibility,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told a news conference.

To avoid risks of new shortages of medical equipment, which dogged the bloc at the beginning of the pandemic in spring, the commission said it had launched joint procurement for gear needed to inoculate people, such as syringes and disinfectants.

It also extended until April a temporary suspension of customs duties and sales tax on the import of medical equipment.

EU countries could also exempt COVID-19 testing kits and vaccines from sales tax, the commission said.

In an additional move aimed at avoiding further disruptions to the EU internal market, Brussels proposed fast-tracking checks on EU internal borders for goods transported by rail, water or air.

Rapid checks were introduced for goods transported by road after internal trade was disrupted at the start of the pandemic due to border controls introduced within the border-free Schengen area to prevent the spread of the virus.

To better trace the spread of infections, Brussels said EU governments should coordinate their testing strategies and make greater use of rapid antigen tests, despite the fact that the global supply for these kits is now tightening.

It said the “current shortfalls in testing capacity” required swift action.

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