The European Union announced on Wednesday the creation of a new biomedical authority designed to better respond to future pandemics, as it seeks to avoid repeating the mistakes that plagued its early response to the coronavirus.
Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, also pledged to donate 200 million extra coronavirus vaccine doses to middle- and low-income countries by mid-2022, in addition to 250 million already promised by the end of the year.
In her annual speech on the state of the union, Ms. von der Leyen described vaccination discrepancies as one of the greatest geopolitical issues facing nations.
“The scale of injustice and the level of urgency are obvious,” Ms. von der Leyen told lawmakers at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, in eastern France, acknowledging that the bloc and other rich nations had fallen short on their promises.
But the bloc’s pledges on vaccine donations have so far rung hollow: E.U. member countries had only donated 18 million doses as of early September, a fraction of the 200 million promised. Covax, the global vaccine-sharing program, of which the European Union is a part, last week slashed its forecast for doses available this year, in part because rich countries continued to hold most of the world’s doses.
Still, Ms. von der Leyen’s speech served as a reset for the European Commission after early missteps in vaccine procurement that took a more positive turn in recent months.
While most developing countries have yet to administer a single dose of a coronavirus vaccine, including in the European Union’s immediate neighborhood, more than 70 percent of adults across the bloc have been fully vaccinated.
“We delivered,” she said, although she conceded that the bloc faced wide discrepancies domestically, as several Eastern European countries have been lagging behind.
Ms. von der Leyen’s confident tone on Wednesday came in great contrast with her speech last year, when new Covid-19 cases were picking up across the bloc and coronavirus vaccines were months away.
“When I stood here in front of you a year ago, I didn’t know when and if we could have a safe and effective vaccine against the pandemic,” she said.
The European Commission, which negotiated for vaccines on behalf of member countries, was heavily criticized for the sluggish beginning of its vaccination program. The commission signed its first deal on behalf of member nations months after the United States, hampering vaccine deliveries and, later, inoculation campaigns.
Yet the rollout gained speed in recent months, and many E.U. countries have now overtaken other rich nations like the Britain, Israel and the United States. Some have started administering booster shots to millions of older and vulnerable residents, even though the World Health Organization has called on the richest nations to delay boosters until the end of the year, to allow more doses to go to poorer countries.
To help the bloc be better prepared for future health crises, Ms. von der Leyen said that the new agency — known as the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority, or HERA — would aim to “make sure that no virus will ever turn a local epidemic again into a global pandemic.”
Understand Vaccine and Mask Mandates in the U.S.
- Vaccine rules. On Aug. 23, the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and up, paving the way for an increase in mandates in both the public and private sectors. Private companies have been increasingly mandating vaccines for employees. Such mandates are legally allowed and have been upheld in court challenges.
- Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public places within areas experiencing outbreaks, a reversal of the guidance it offered in May. See where the C.D.C. guidance would apply, and where states have instituted their own mask policies. The battle over masks has become contentious in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
- College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.
- Schools. Both California and New York City have introduced vaccine mandates for education staff. A survey released in August found that many American parents of school-age children are opposed to mandated vaccines for students, but were more supportive of mask mandates for students, teachers and staff members who do not have their shots.
- Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get a Covid-19 vaccine, citing rising caseloads fueled by the Delta variant and stubbornly low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their work force.
- New York City. Proof of vaccination is required of workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances and other indoor situations, although enforcement does not begin until Sept. 13. Teachers and other education workers in the city’s vast school system will need to have at least one vaccine dose by Sept. 27, without the option of weekly testing. City hospital workers must also get a vaccine or be subjected to weekly testing. Similar rules are in place for New York State employees.
- At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would seek to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “no later” than the middle of September. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees would have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel.
It is set to receive 50 billion euros (about $59 billion) in funding by 2027 and will function alongside the E.U.’s existing health agencies, the European Center for Disease Control and the European Medicines Agency.
But its exact role remains unclear, as E.U. members each run their own health policies. The pandemic brought to light the limits of the European Center for Disease Control, which is in charge of coordinating individual nations’ pandemic response plans but has had limited powers in enforcing or modifying states’ actions.
Still, many welcomed the creation of the new agency, highlighting a need for more coordination at an E.U. level. Véronique Trillet-Lenoir, an oncologist and a lawmaker in the European Parliament, said the agency could reinforce solidarity among the bloc’s member countries, something it lacked in the early stages of the pandemic.
“What the coronavirus pandemic has shown is that the 27 member states have fared much better all together,” Ms. Trillet-Lenoir said, “and that no European country would have done better on its own.”
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