Europe’s week: Fresh COVID wave and possible vaccine patent waiver

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Across the continent, infections have once again broken records as a fresh wave of COVID hits Europe.

Governments have imposed tough new measures that remind us of the first lockdowns last year.

After Austria, Slovakia approved a national lockdown, initially for two weeks, that targets all, both unvaccinated and vaccinated.

Italy decided to toughen up on the unvaccinated who are now excluded from certain leisure activities in order to stave off financially crippling lockdowns.

“What these measures say is that we want to prevent in order to preserve… we want to be extremely cautious and avoid the risks of course, but also, we want to keep what we have achieved, what Italians have achieved in the last year,” Italian prime minister Mario Draghi said this week.

France rolled out a controversial vaccine passport system and Denmark is mulling the reintroduction of mandatory face masks in public.

Particularly dramatic is the situation in Germany where the 100,000 COVID death toll was crossed a few days ago.

The outgoing health minister, Jens Spahn, had a dire warning, saying that by the end of the winter “pretty much everyone in Germany will be vaccinated, recovered or dead”.

The incoming chancellor, Olaf Scholz, already raised the possibility of mandatory vaccinations.

“Vaccination is the way out of this pandemic. In facilities where particularly vulnerable groups are cared for, we should make vaccination mandatory. An expansion of this provision remains to be explored,” he said.

Peter Liese MEP, a Christian Democrat from Germany and one of the leading health experts in the European Parliament, told Euronews that compulsory jabs may be the lesser of two evils.

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“I hope it will not be necessary all over Europe. We have countries with very high vaccination rates like Italy, Spain, Portugal and I hope it will not be necessary there,” Liese said. “But for my country, Germany, I’m in doubt because we are suffering again a very heavy wave.

“People are affected, their businesses are affected and the health care system is about to be overloaded. So, in politics and in law it’s always about the minor evil. And I doubt that what we see now is a minor evil compared to a vaccination mandate.”

In Austria, the toughening of the restrictions had an immediate effect.

Since the announcement of the lockdown and a nationwide vaccination mandate, the country’s largest vaccine centre in Vienna saw a surge of people who want to get jabbed.

According to national statistics, the daily number of vaccinations has grown from roughly 1,000 a day two weeks ago to around 12,000 a day this week.

Most people were there for their booster shots, but the number of first vaccinations also rose by up to 15 percent.

Some political analysts say the Austrian government did not effectively communicate the importance of vaccines early enough, and many Austrians did not take the vaccination campaign seriously.

Green pass update

In other related news, Brussels said its COVID travel pass – used for cross-border travel – will expire nine months after the last vaccine dose.

A booster shot will be required to extend the certificate’s validity.

In a travel recommendation unveiled on Thursday afternoon, the European Commission updated the rules of the COVID pass – which has been in place since the early summer – in order to take into consideration the ongoing coronavirus surge and the roll-out of booster shots.

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Under the proposed amendment, the COVID pass – called the EU Digital COVID Certificate – will only be valid for travel across the bloc during the nine months following the last vaccine dose of the so-called “primary series”: one dose for the Johnson & Johnson jab and two doses for the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines.

Recently released data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) shows vaccine protection wanes after the first six months and recommends having a booster shot to prolong the immunity beyond that timeframe.

The European Commission said the three extra months on top of the six will give more flexibility to EU countries in their inoculation campaigns. Health policy is a national competence and each country develops its own vaccine rollout. The purchase of the shots is, however, centralised by the EU through common procurement agreements.

The executive is now assessing how long the booster shot will remain valid.

Possible patent waiver

Euronews learned on Friday that a deal to allow developing countries to produce COVID-19 vaccines — without an agreement from the holder of the patent — could be reached by next week.

The EU, which is against the wholesale waiving of intellectual property rights, says it is now “ready to go beyond” its initial position, “to get consensus on a waiver that makes sense [and] that will increase production,” a European Commission official has said.

Negotiations on a targeted waiver are ongoing in Geneva at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

If a consensus is reached, any country seeking to authorise a company to produce vaccines should immediately be able to do so “without fearing a potential risk of litigation by the holders of the patent”.

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“The EU has been intensively engaged over the last months to try to find a way forward that confirms and reassures countries that consider they actually need to authorise a company to produce vaccines — they should be able to do so in a rapid and effective manner even if there is no agreement by the holder of the patent,” said an EU source.

“We are ready to look into a waiver that is sufficiently targeted towards the aim to achieve that any country that considers it should be able to authorise a company to produce and export vaccines should be able to do it in a rapid and effective manner.”

The EU’s position remains that without intellectual property rights, “we wouldn’t have a vaccine”.

However, “we are now trying to find pragmatic solutions, targeted at COVID-19 vaccines, without putting the whole intellectual property system into jeopardy,” an official said.

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