EU leaders seek common ground on COVID tests as virus spreads

European Council President Charles Michel takes off his protective face mask prior to speaking during a media conference at the end of an EU summit in Brussels, Belgium, 16 October 2020. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER MATTHYS]

EU leaders aim to make progress on common testing and vaccination strategies at a video conference on Thursday (29 October) 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.

Rapid antigen tests

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.

Antigen tests, although currently regarded as less reliable, “are more efficient, yielding results within 15 minutes, and therefore make it faster and easier to identify, on a large scale, individuals who are carriers of the virus and contagious, in particular when they are asymptomatic,” Michel said.

“However, we must not make the same mistakes as before: we must coordinate the approval of those tests in order to ensure that they are recognised Europe-wide,” he added.

Countries turn to rapid antigen tests to contain second wave of COVID-19

Countries straining to contain a second wave of COVID-19 are turning to faster, cheaper but less accurate tests to avoid the delays and shortages that have plagued efforts to diagnose and trace those infected quickly.

Michel 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.

Commission tones down hopes for a COVID-19 vaccine soon

The European Commission is not able to say when a COVID-19 vaccine will be available, EU health chief Stella Kyriakides admitted on Thursday (24 September), even though a senior EU official voiced hope earlier this month that the first vaccine could have market authorisation as early as November.

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