Health Brief: East lags behind in vaccination race

Health-Brief-Article-Header

Europe is now battling new spikes of COVID-19 cases, especially in Eastern member states where there is a lower vaccination uptake. This not only stretches the health systems, but puts the conversation on measures needed to stop the virus spread back on the political agenda.  

When the SARS‑CoV‑2 virus hit and measures such as social distancing and lockdowns were introduced across the globe, humanity was hopefully looking to vaccines as a way to end the pandemic. 

Last year, a few days before Christmas, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) recommended granting a conditional marketing authorisation for the vaccine Comirnaty, developed by BioNTech and Pfizer.

At the time, European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) Director Andrea Ammon called the availability of safe and efficacious vaccines a “most powerful tool in ensuring public health” and an “important milestone in the course of this pandemic.”

Other vaccines were soon to follow in the EU: another mRNA vaccine  – Spikevax (previously COVID-19 Vaccine Moderna), and adenoviral vector vaccines – Oxford’s Vaxzevria and the single-shot Janssen by Johnson&Johnson. 

But as powerful a tool as these vaccines are, they are unable to tackle the bloc’s biggest challenge: vaccine hesitancy. 

On 31 August this year, the EU reached the “crucial milestone” of 70% of the adult population fully vaccinated. 

On that day, Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said that the EU could not become complacent, but instead that there was a need to “close the immunity gap and the door for new variants”.

But months after reaching the 70% target, some EU members are still lagging behind. 

And once again it seems that Europe is divided along familiar cracks: between East and West. 

The number of coronavirus infections recorded so far in eastern Europe surpassed 20 million on Sunday (24 October), according to a Reuters tally, as the region grapples with its worst outbreak since the pandemic started and inoculation efforts lag.

Countries in the region have the lowest vaccination rates in Europe, with less than half of the population having received a single dose.

Based on ECDC’s Vaccine tracker data, Bulgaria is the last in last place across the EU, with only 26% uptake of at least one COVID-19 shot among adults. Romania is also far behind, with less than 38% of its population having at least one jab, followed by Slovakia reaching a 54% vaccination rate. 

On the other side of the bloc, Portugal is leading the vaccination race with 99% of its population vaccinated with at least one shot, followed by Malta and Ireland, both reaching 93% uptake of at least one COVID-19 shot among adults. 

Uptake of at least one dose among adults in the EU as of 26 October reached 80%, while 75% of EU’s citizens are fully vaccinated. 

As the winter sets in and there are more cosy social gatherings, cases are growing in many member states. And this is followed by new restrictions. 

In Latvia, where vaccination uptake of at least one dose is 61%, the least among the Baltic states, the president Egils Levits contracted COVID-19, his chief of staff said 14 October. As the country reported new records for daily coronavirus cases, a COVID-19 lockdown was announced from 21 October until 15 November

In the meantime, Belgium, a country that has higher than average uptake of at least one COVID-19 shot, reaching 87% of population, is poised to reinforce pandemic measures in an attempt to stunt a sharp increase of coronavirus cases. 

The Belgian cabinet met on 25 October to discuss mandatory use of face masks and virus passports, with the outcome of the talks expected to be announced later today (26 October). 

Given the circumstances, it comes as no surprise then that EU leaders focused on COVID-19 during the European Council on 21-22 October.

In the Council’s conclusions, it highlights that despite vaccination campaigns bringing “significant progress” in the fight against COVID-19, the situation in some Member States remains “very serious”.

The council called for efforts to combat vaccine hesitancy by tackling disinformation, notably on social media platforms. 

The call is important to be heard as the longer the virus circulates, the higher is the risk of developing new variants. 

“Vaccinations must win the race over variants,” said Kyriakides back in August.

But the question of how to fight vaccination hesitancy remains, for the moment, unanswered.

(G.P.)

EU NEWS

Digital COVID certificate was originally set up as a tool to save the summer for European holidaymakers. Now that the fine weather is over, we can begin to wonder if it worked. EURACTIV takes a look at what impact these certificates actually had.

Plenary

On 21 October, the European Parliament voted by a vast majority to adopt a report on protecting workers from asbestos in what has been dubbed a “historic” move.

In a resolution adopted on 21 October, Parliament called for legislation to make the process of researching, purchasing and distributing COVID-19 vaccines more transparent. This would enable MEPs to effectively scrutinise EU vaccine policies. At the same time, the Commission should be discussing these policies more openly with citizens.

In a resolution on the EU strategy to reduce methane emissions, also adopted on 21 October, MEPs call on the Commission to propose binding measures and methane reduction targets for all sectors. The objective is to significantly reduce methane emissions in the EU by 2030 in line with the Paris Agreement. MEPs underlined that methane contributes to ozone formation, a potent cause of local air pollution that causes serious health problems, and it will therefore improve air quality and protect citizens’ health. Additionally, reducing human-caused methane emissions is one of the most cost-effective strategies to slow down climate change, they pointed out.

The same plenary session also adopted updated motor insurance rules in a bid to ensure that citizens are better protected and treated equally in the EU when accidents occur and when insuring their vehicles.

On 20 October, MEPs reversed most cuts made by the Council (€1.43 billion altogether)  in the 2022 EU budget and thereby restored the draft budget to the level originally proposed by the Commission in the budget lines concerned. EU4Health has also been boosted, with an additional €80 million to build up a strong European Health Union and to make national health systems more resilient.

NGOs

#SaveEUHealthNGOs. It seems like a new hashtag has appeared in the EU health bubble this week. Here is what you missed: Alzheimer Europe and other European health NGOs have joined forces to convince Commissioner Stella Kyriakides to include operating grants for health NGOs in the EU4Health 2021-2027. 

On 18 June 2021, the European Commission released its EU4Health programme, aka the EU’s ambitious response to COVID-19. But this new program does not include operating grants for health NGOs. 

Rather than cutting funding to EU health NGOs already impacted by the pandemic, the Commission should treat them as partners to achieve the ambitious objectives of the EU4Health programme and adequately support their activities, said Jean Georges, Executive Director of Alzheimer Europe, supported by European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), Eurordis (Rare diseases Europe) and Europe Patients’ Forum (EPF). 

NGOs decided to merge efforts under the hashtag #SaveEUHealthNGOs to get the subventions back. And it looks like it is a success. 

Monday (25 October), Commissioner Kyriakides announced she finally would maintain the operating grants for NGOs. Civil society make an invaluable contribution to policy making and are key for building a strong European #HealthUnion. #EU4Health is both a response to #COVID19 and a funding plan for the future, the Commissioner said in a tweet. 

Eurordis have since expressed their sincere gratitude to Stella Kyriakides. 

COVID vaccines and treatment

On Monday (25 October), EMA’s human medicines committee (CHMP) concluded that a booster dose of the COVID-19 vaccine Spikevax (from Moderna) may be considered in people aged 18 years and above.

This follows data showing that a third dose of Spikevax given 6 to 8 months after the second dose led to a rise in antibody levels in adults whose antibody levels were waning. The booster dose consists of half the dose used for the primary vaccination schedule. The current data indicate that the pattern of side effects after the booster is similar to what occurs after the second dose.

On Monday (25 October) EMA’s human medicines committee (CHMP) started a rolling review of the oral antiviral medicine ‘molnupiravir’ for the treatment of COVID-19 in adults. EMA will evaluate data on the quality, safety and effectiveness of the medicine. The rolling review will continue until enough evidence is available for the company to submit a formal marketing authorisation application.

On 22 October, the Commission, delivering on a key action from the EU Strategy on COVID-19 Therapeutics, established a portfolio of 10 potential COVID-19 therapeutics. The list focuses on COVID-19 treatment candidates that are likely to be authorised and therefore available on the European market soon. Six of the selected therapeutics are already under rolling review or have applied for marketing authorisation to the European Medicines Agency. They could receive authorisation soon, provided the final data demonstrate their quality, safety, and efficacy.

On 21 October The World Health Organization and partners issued an urgent call for concrete action to better protect health and care workers worldwide from COVID-19 and other health issues. In a joint statement, the WHO and partners are calling on all member states’ governments and stakeholders to strengthen the monitoring and reporting of COVID-19 infections, ill-health and deaths among health and care workers.  

Lessons from COVID

The whole healthcare sector is in the process of taking stock of the COVID-19 crisis in terms of lessons learned during the pandemic. But what have Europeans really learned about the basics of how to fight a virus? 

In 2005, 43% of respondents of a Eurobarometer survey indicated that the statement ‘antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria’ is true. Fifteen years (and a pandemic) after, the number dropped to 32%, as reported by the latest Eurobarometer on knowledge and attitudes toward science and technology.

Belgium seems to have learned the COVID lesson well: only 7% of Belgian respondents think the statement is true, compared to 36% in 2005. Italians, French and Spanish respondents need a biology refresher though, as the number of people who think the statement is true dropped respectively from only 40% to 39%, from 35% to 33%, and from 46% to 42%. Mysteriously, the same data increased by 10% for both Bulgarians and Romanians surveyed, which now amounts to 65% and 63% respectively.

Positive trends in the decrease are also confirmed for Germans and Portuguese surveyed, from 46% to 14% respectively.

Another interesting take from this poll is that 26% of Europeans surveyed believe the cure for cancer exists but is hidden from the public by commercial interests, with the highest percentage reached for Cyprus, Greece, and Hungary – respectively 58%, 52%, and 48%. 

Digitalisation

In The Lancet review published on Monday (25 October), experts said that future health care systems depend on radical change in approach to digital technologies. They urged for “radical rethink on harnessing the power of digital technologies for our future health”. 

Osteoporosis

On World Osteoporosis Day (20 October), Theramex in cooperation with the International Osteoporosis Foundation has launched a new survey, of over 1000 women with osteoporosis from Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Australia and Brazil. The survey highlighted a gap in osteoporosis awareness, as one-fourth of the patients aged 55 years and over were not aware and did not understand the link between osteoporosis and bone fractures.

THE CAPITALS

TIRANA

Government announces extension of vaccination drive. COVID-19 vaccinations will now be available to those over 12 and boosters will be given to the over 60s, according to an Albanian government announcement on Friday (25 October). By  Alice Taylor |  exit.al

SOFIA

Bulgarian tourism industry to protest ‘discriminatory’ Green pass. Bulgaria’s tourism and restaurant industry has threatened to start national protests if the government does not amend the rules for issuing a Green pass so that COVID-19 antibody tests can be legally recognised for getting the certificate. By  Krassen Nikolov |  EURACTIV.bg

LJUBLJANA 

Slovenia to promote vaccination by offering incentives to GPs. Slovenia plans to improve its dismal vaccination rate by providing incentives for general practitioners who actively encourage vaccination.  By  Mateja Benec |  STA

VIENNA

Austria introduces lockdown plans for unvaccinated. On Friday, the Austrian government announced new COVID-19 measures that specifically target unvaccinated people. The plan includes the possibility of lockdown measures for the unvaccinated if the occupancy rate of intensive care units reaches a certain threshold. By  Oliver Noyan |  EURACTIV.de

BRATISLAVA

Slovak government paid millions to letterbox companies as part of pandemic aid programme. According to the Investigative Institute of Ján Kuciak, the Slovak government paid out around €24 million to letterbox companies. The government meant the money to help small and medium-sized businesses during the pandemic. By  Michal Hudec |  EURACTIV.sk

ROME

Italian pharmacies register record high COVID-19 test sales due to unvaccinated workers. Data shows that a record 548,000 people were tested for COVID in Italy on Tuesday, the highest number since the start of the pandemic. The spike in tests is linked to the COVID health pass being mandatory for private and public sector employees across the country since 15 October. By Viola Stefanello |  EURACTIV.it

PARIS

French lawmakers pass bill to extend health pass until next summer. MPs in the National Assembly have adopted the so-called “health vigilance” bill, which allows the possibility of extending the health pass until 31 July 2022. French lawmakers were split over the issue, narrowly passing it by 74 votes to 73. By  Clara Bauer-Babef |  EURACTIV.fr

French government to invest €650 million in digital health. France has the potential to be a “leader in digital health”, Health Minister Olivier Véran has said, announcing an investment plan of €650 million, divided into five axes, to accelerate the national digital health strategy, as part of the Health Innovation 2030 plan. By  Clara Bauer-Babef |  EURACTIV.fr

BELGRADE 

Serbian PM: Covid passes to be used in hospitality. COVID passes will be introduced in Serbia from Saturday in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić said on Wednesday (20 October).  betabriefing.com and EURACTIV.rs

ATHENS

Pandemic nightmare returns in Greece. The National Public Health Organisation (EODY) reported on Tuesday one of the highest numbers of daily cases (3,739) since the pandemic started as vaccination rates remain low compared to other EU countries. By  Matthaios Tsimitakis |  EURACTIV.gr

VIENNA

Austria to introduce new COVID rules at work. From 1 November, everybody who has physical contact with other people in the workplace needs proof that they are either vaccinated, recovered, or tested negative for COVID-19, Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein announced in a press conference on Wednesday. By  Oliver Noyan |  EURACTIV.de

BUCHAREST

Romanian president steps in as pandemic gets out of control. President Klaus Iohannis has called a meeting of all health authorities involved in the management of the coronavirus pandemic as the death toll hit a new record high of 574 COVID-related deaths on Tuesday (19 October). By  Bogdan Neagu |  EURACTIV.ro

SOFIA

Bulgaria introduces Green COVID-19 pass. The Bulgarian government has drastically tightened restrictive measures to stem the fourth wave of coronavirus infection. From Thursday, the Green pass becomes mandatory for most indoor activities. By  Krassen Nikolov |  EURACTIV.bg

HELSINKI

Travel to Finland not recommended as country turns ‘red’ on EU COVID travel map. The coronavirus situation in Finland has deteriorated at an alarming pace with an incidence rate of 138 per 100,000 residents. As a result, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDchangeding the country’s listing from yellow to red, meaning travel there is not recommended. Pekka Vanttinen |  EURACTIV.com

DUBLIN 

Ireland slows rollback of pandemic restrictions as cases climb. Due to rising infection rates, theIrish government has announced that some COVID-19 measures will be extended beyond their planned end later this week. By  Molly Killeen |  EURACTIV.com

EVENTS

24-29 October | International Lead Poisoning Prevention week

27 October | Trilogue between European Parliament and EU Council on new powers to EU’s infectious diseases agency (ECDC)

27-28 October | European Parliament’s health committee with exchanges of views on medical devices, the EU4Health Programme and European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA)

28 October | Metastatic Breast Cancer – How can we improve care for patients and survivors?, EURACTIV event

 

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe