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Statement by President von der Leyen at the joint press conference with President Michel, following the videoconference of the members of the European Council

Met dank overgenomen van Europese Commissie (EC), gepubliceerd op donderdag 25 februari 2021.
Ursula von der Leyen, on the right, and Charles Michel
Bron: European Commission

Thank you so much.

Let me add a few comments. We started the Leaders VTC with a brief look at the epidemiological situation: We observe stable and decreasing trends in 20 countries, but increasing trends in about 7 others. At the same time, indeed, there is a growing COVID-19 fatigue among our citizens. It has been a very trying year. But we should not let up now.

Not only does the situation remain serious in many parts of Europe, but we must also watch out for the variants that are spreading. The B.1.1.7 is by now in all Member States but one. The South African variant is in 14 Member States, and the Brazilian variant in 7. So there is a lot of challenge ahead of us.

The first task is, of course, to achieve widespread vaccination. We should maintain our utmost efforts so the pace of the vaccination picks up. I shared numbers with the Leaders: By Sunday, so by the end of this week, more than 50 million doses of vaccines will have been delivered to the European Union. More than 29 million doses have been administered as of today. That is approximately 6.4% of the whole population. And if you subtract children and teenager, it is 8% of the adult population.

To continue increasing the speed of our vaccination effort, everyone has to play a role. So we are working with the companies to ramp up production and address bottlenecks in the supply. We are ensuring speedy availability of new production plants in Europe - a good example is recently BioNTech starting the new plants in Austria and in Germany, in Marburg. This gave a little dip in that week, but they have caught up already with the delivery of their vaccines. And the Marburg plant, for example, if full functioning by July will be able to produce 1 billion doses per year. So that is a real step forward. Currently, 41 industrial sites contribute to the vaccine production here in Europe, but many more could join the effort. So we are strongly encouraging cooperation between industrial actors.

We are also addressing the bottlenecks in supply chains - that goes from active ingredients to specialised filters, and of course the fill and finish capacity. We are, on these issues, also in discussion with the United States, as they are an important actor on many of these just mentioned issues.

And let us also stay focused on vaccination in partner countries - the international dimension. The European Union has announced a doubling of its support to COVAX, to EUR 1 billion. If we take the whole of Team Europe, then Team Europe contributed EUR 2.2 billion to COVAX. But in parallel, as we know that vaccine in kind is desperately needed, Member States should make use of the vaccine sharing mechanism we have proposed last week to organise potential donations of vaccines to our partners.

A brief look on the variants: It is our task to detect and tackle as soon as possible, as fast as possible variants. That is the reason why we launched last week the HERA Incubator to build up our response to variants to stay ahead of the curve. What we need to do is to support the rapid detection of new variants through cooperation with Member States, notably by increasing the sequencing. For that, the European Commission is providing EUR 200 million to the legal framework that the ECDC is offering, to allow Member States - within this legal framework - to contract for sequencing, because we have to detect on a regular basis how the virus is spreading and whether the variants are spreading and how they are developing.

Support of vaccine research and development is important. So having established a kind of library on the changes of the virus, we also need constantly to fuel the research on adapting the vaccines to potential changes of the virus. We did start an EU-wide Clinical Trials Network, because if you develop updated vaccines, you need of course the clinical trial to test them. And we need the amendment of the regulatory procedures to accelerate the approval of modified COVID-19 vaccines. And finally, to achieve all of this, we need the engagement of the pharmaceutical industry to boost their capacity. I am glad to say that Leaders confirmed their strong support for the HERA Incubator today. So we can get down to work now.

On the vaccination certificates: Indeed, we discussed this topic. As you know, there are still a number of open questions, political questions. The first one is of course what these certificates will be used for. But there are also scientific questions that are still open. It is still unclear whether you can transmit the disease, even if you are vaccinated. Although, that is a concern that will wane as the vaccination rate increases. We have promising data from Israel where the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine shows that when you are fully vaccinated with a double shot, you are no more transmitting the disease. So finally, the decision on what you are able to do potentially with such a vaccination certificate is to be decided particularly within each country.

But at the EU level, I believe we should use them to ensure the functioning of the Single Market. And the good news is: We do not start from scratch. At the end of January, the Member States, with the support of the Commission, agreed on what kind of data are needed for such a vaccination certificate for medical purposes. So very simple: it is a uniform content - which kind of vaccine has been used - ; it is a unique identifier - like an IBAN code - ; and a minimum dataset that is necessary for each certificate.

Now, the Member States need to implement that in their healthcare systems and their border systems to make sure that their healthcare system is fit for purpose. And we offer, from the Commission side, to coordinate on the standards - like we have done with the tracing apps - and to create a gateway that connects the different national solutions with each other so that this information is interoperable over time. This takes a while, so this takes at least around three months. That is important, so that expectations are not too early too high.

And it is very important that this system is neutral to political choices. So you can pass the information ‘this person has been vaccinated'; you can also pass the information ‘this person has a negative PCR test'; or for example ‘this person has overcome COVID-19 and is immune'. So it is neutral towards the information. It is just a technical work that has to be done now. Member States will need to move fast with the implementation if we want such a ‘green certificate' to be in place by this summer. Beyond agreeing on the principles and the technology, they will have to ensure a quick and complete roll-out in their national health systems and in their border systems.

Thank you so much.

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