EU ministers eyes coordinated approach for second COVID booster

On Tuesday (29 March), EU-27 health ministers gathered in Brussels to discuss the next steps in the EU's vaccines strategy as well as the health crisis in Ukraine. [EU Council]

A group of EU countries has urged the European Commission to promote a coordinated approach in administering the fourth COVID-19 vaccine dose as some differences among member states are already looming large.

During the gathering of EU-27 health ministers in Brussels on Tuesday (29 March), Germany and Italy were at the forefront of those advocating for a unified position in terms of both timing and segments of the population to which the fourth dose should be administered.

“Inconsistent choices in the various European countries only end up confusing people and do not help the vaccination campaigns,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza in a press point after the Council.

The current situation for a second additional booster shot is particularly fragmented as some member states are already administrating the fourth dose for immunosuppressed people, while others have opened up the possibility for those over 60 or 75 of age.

There are also EU countries that have not introduced the second booster at all, as the EU’s medicine agency (EMA) is still collecting evidence in this regard.

Vaccine developers, Germany’s BioNTech and US pharma giant Pfizer, are confident that a fourth dose is needed. US regulators authorised the second COVID booster of both companies for people 50 and older Tuesday (29 March).

EMA says not enough evidence for a second COVID booster

There is not yet enough evidence to justify additional COVID-19 boosters, according to the European Medical Authority (EMA) Head of Vaccine Strategy Marco Cavaleri, while BioNTech Pfizer have already applied for authorisation for additional jabs in the US

Common position expected “in the next few days”

Health European Commissioner Stella Kyriakides replied to the ministers that the EU’s health agencies are currently examining all the data and will come forward with timely recommendations very soon.

“In the next few days, next week would be great. We’ll hopefully be able to have a coordinated, harmonized position,” said French minister Oliver Véran, who is holding the rotating presidency of the EU Health Council.

Kyriakides echoed Veran’s words saying that time is of the essence in this case. “It is crucial that we do have a common and timely strategy, especially in preparation for the winter to come,” she added.

She referred to new data from Israel that shows that the fourth dose could improve protection in the older population and people with severely weakened immune systems.

Véran mentioned other studies on the second booster currently undergoing in France and Germany that could enrich the scientific debate. “We think we should be able to find a consensus,” he said.

“In any case, our vaccine supply is secured,” reassured Kyriakides, who added that it is important that the EU gives clear, coherent messages to citizens in this situation.

Ukraine adds “another layer of urgency”

Kyriakides invited EU countries to remain vigilant and that the vaccination campaign must continue as the COVID-19 pandemic “is still with us” and “vaccination is as important today as it was a few months ago.”

“Unfortunately, we are seeing vaccinations plateauing at the same time as restrictions are being lifted”, she said. “And this is understandable. People are tired. Economies are exhausted.”

However, she pointed out that while 72% of the EU population received the first vaccine doses and over 52% are ‘boosted’, there are still more than 100 million unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated people in Europe.

“Vaccination remains our best tool in combating the pandemic, and we must be prepared for the autumn and winter months,” she said.

Kyriakides also stressed that the arrival of millions of people from Ukraine adds “an additional layer of urgency to our work” to ensure that protection with vaccination.

For instance, there is a need to address low vaccination coverage for preventable diseases, such as tuberculosis, polio and measles, particularly for children.

The Commission created a system to channel donations, which are also coming from the private sector, directly from Ukraine and neighbouring countries.

Kyriakides announced that the new Commission’s DG HERA service for health preparedness secured 200,000 diphtheria and tetanus vaccines from French company Sanofi for Ukraine. At the same time, another 70,000 will go to Czechia, Slovakia and Moldova through the EU’s civil protection mechanism.

WHO: saving patients in Ukraine is challenging as bombs fall

Amid the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is becoming increasingly difficult for citizens to access healthcare, and saving people from very common diseases has also become more complex, according to a World Health Organisation (WHO) official.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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