EU to fund transfer of COVID-19 patients across borders to prevent hospitals collapse

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel at presser following the online summit on 29 October 2020. [Council Newsroom]

The European Union will finance the transfer of patients across borders within the bloc to prevent hospitals from getting overwhelmed as COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations spike in the continent.

After a video conference of EU leaders to discuss the health crisis on Thursday (29 October), the head of the EU Commission Ursula von der Leyen said the EU executive had made available €220 million to move COVID-19 patients across borders.

“The spread of the virus will overwhelm our healthcare systems if we do not act urgently,” she said.

In spring France moved patients for treatment in Germany, less hit by the first wave of the pandemic. But on Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron said that moving patients across borders was no longer a solution, because in all countries the health systems would be overwhelmed, as they would experience the same challenge.

At the meeting leaders agreed to better coordinate efforts to battle the virus as infections in Europe exceeded 10 million, making the continent again the epicenter of the pandemic.

EU countries want to avoid divisions which dogged the 27-nation bloc at the beginning of the pandemic, when nations vied with each other to buy scarce medical equipment.

The Commission chief also said that the EU would launch a platform that would bring together the specialists advising every national government, and the experts advising the EU. She said it was member countries who asked this, in order to share best practice and exchange scientific knowledge at the highest level.

To better trace infections, von der Leyen said the EU would work for the quick validation at EU level of rapid antigen tests, which allow quicker results than the standard PCR (polymerase chain reaction) molecular kits.

The Commission is also intensifying its efforts to get potential vaccines against the new coronavirus.

The EU was in talks with four companies, and had already sealed supply deals with another three, she said.

The EU has secured potential vaccines being developed by AstraZeneca, Sanofi and Johnson & Johnson .

It has also said it is in talks with Moderna, CureVac and a partnership of Pfizer and BionTech. Reuters reported in September that the EU was also in preliminary talks with Novavax.

The Commission chief assured that once vaccines become available, member states will all receive them at the same time, according to the size of their population.

Von der Leyen also said that the Commission had created a European gateway for interoperability of the tracing apps across the EU. 22 countries had tracing apps and three were already connected, while 19 were expected to join in November. She said that 50 million Europeans had downloaded such apps, but this was not enough.

“We need across the board coverage across the Union”, she said.

The Commission chief also said that the EU executive would launch a pilot for a passenger locator form for air travelers in November, the aim being to have a common European passenger locator form by the end of the year.

The chair of the meeting, Charles Michel, said EU leaders committed to a fair distribution of vaccines once available. That would be done in proportion to population, von der Leyen said.

Michel said vaccination plans at a national level were crucial to make sure the first limited doses of vaccines could be distributed quickly to those most in need.

Many countries however have not yet defined their inoculation plans, and have different targets.

Michel also highlighted the need to complete the decision-making for releasing the package agreed in July, in order to limit the economic and social damage.

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