Interview with EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides on lockdowns, public health, support programmes and vaccines in the fight against coronavirusEU
What is the current epidemiological situation in Europe? How effective have lockdowns been in reducing the impact of the virus?
The situation in the EU is still very fragile, with disparities between member states. The common element is that the virus is everywhere, and circulating in our communities. But in several countries, we are starting to see the results of the strict measures taken and that the number of new infections are going down and hospitals are less under pressure. This is of course encouraging. Lockdowns are hard. They are very difficult for our citizens, for our economies and our societies. But lockdowns have proven to be effective measures to stop the situation from getting out of hand and save lives, which at the end of the day is what is the main priority.
How do you balance the difficult choices between saving lives and protecting the economy?
The dilemma between lives and livelihoods is false. We cannot have healthy economies without healthy citizens. Our priority from the start of the pandemic has been to protect our citizens and save lives. Public health should always come first, because if it does not, economies suffer. The very difficult public health decisions that had to be taken have also had very important economic consequences. Countless citizens have lost their jobs and families are being forced to close the businesses they spent years building. This is painful for all of us to see. And this is why we are also doing everything we can to help protect businesses and save jobs. Through our Next Generation EU recovery plan and the EU budget, we will make €1.8 trillion available to help rebuilding a post Covid-19 Europe and to protect citizens from the risk of unemployment and loss of income. This is an unprecedented and historic step for Europe.
What economic support has Cyprus received so far?
Under the SURE Instrument, Cyprus will receive low-interest rate loans amounting to €479 million. This will help Cyprus support employees and the self-employed and will guarantee income support to those that have to abstain from work for health reasons due to the Covid-19 pandemic. I am very pleased to note that Cyprus, received last week, €250 million from the mechanism.
Given the difficult situation, is it better for schools to be open or closed in your opinion?
This is obviously an issue of great concern. Having schools open is of crucial importance to the mental health and wellbeing of children. Our European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) has told us that the benefit of risks and benefits in schools are clearly in favour of keeping schools open. What we need to do is to ensure that this risk is minimised. Schools must be safe environments. Children and teachers must be protected. Here as well, public health must be the key priority.
With the Christmas period approaching, will be able to celebrate as normal this year?
We know that unfortunately this Christmas will have to be different. But almost all of 2020 has been different. We all want to be able to have as normal a Christmas as possible, and be able to travel and celebrate with friends and family – especially after the difficult year we have had. But our discipline and adherence to public health measures remains critical and needs to continue. It is clear that we cannot afford to have a situation where a relaxation of measures over the Christmas period leads to a surge in cases in the new year, which could be catastrophic for our health systems. Any measures taken will have to take this into consideration.
Recently you referred to a new plan called the European Health Union. Can you explain what it means and what its objectives are?
Over the course of the pandemic, we have seen increasing calls for more Europe in the area of health. We all saw how crucial cooperation is. A prime example of this is our EU Vaccine Strategy, which has allowed us to focus our combined energy to secure six emblematic agreements with companies producing promising vaccine candidates. Moving forward, we want to be able to cooperate further with our member states on health issues, and deliver better healthcare for our citizens efficiently. A strong European Health Union is the extension of this approach. It is to be able to prepare for and face up to future health threats, but also to build strong health systems that can deliver better health outcomes for EU citizens in their daily lives. This will be achieved through flagship initiatives such as the Pharmaceutical Strategy I presented this week, as well as Europe’s Beating Cancer plan early next year.
When we will have the first vaccines? Can you give us your prediction?
Over the past weeks, we have received very encouraging news from several vaccine developers, with trial results showing positive efficacy results from clinical trials. The news from the Moderna and BioNTech-Pfizer have brought us all a lot of hope that we might be seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. So far, we have signed five contracts with pharmaceutical companies, with negotiations ongoing for at least another two agreements. This means that we now have a total of six agreements in place which would allow us to purchase up to 1.5 billion doses of potential future safe and effective vaccines. I cannot predict a date with certainty, but we hope that before the end of the year, or early next year, we will be able to start vaccinating and protecting as a priority those most exposed and vulnerable, such as our elderly or our health care workers. But we need to remember: the vaccine will not be a silver bullet. Until we vaccinate a large section of the population, public health measures will need to remain in place.
We hear a lot about the safety of vaccines, which is a genuine concern for many citizens. How can you ensure people that you do everything that this or these vaccines will be safe for them?
The safety and effectiveness of any future Covid-19 vaccines is our top priority. The role of the European Medicines Agency could not be more central in this. It has already started reviewing the safety and effectiveness of three vaccines (AstraZeneca, BioNTech/Pfizer, and Moderna) on the basis of data from clinical trials as it becomes available. I want to be absolutely clear that these procedures will maintain the strict safety and efficacy requirements that would be needed for any other vaccine. Due to the crisis, speed is also of the essence of course. But it will not come at the expense of safety.
Are member states making sure that they have vaccination plans in place for the distribution of vaccines? Does the EU monitor their work on this?
Europe needs to be well prepared for vaccination. This is why, in October, we presented the key elements to be taken into consideration by all member states for their Covid-19 vaccination strategies, to prepare as early and quickly as possible. To be prepared means that everyone has to ensure:
- The necessary infrastructure and logistics are in place, whether for transport, storage or for the vaccinations themselves;
- The necessary trained staff and equipment are also in place to begin vaccination campaigns once a safe and effective vaccine is available. We have launched a large-scale procurement for vaccination supplies.
- That priority groups for vaccination are identified.
Together with the ECDC we are working very closely with and are providing support to member states in developing their national vaccination strategies, and we are monitoring this very closely.