Health Brief: Unequal access to vaccines takes root in EU-AU summit

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While health did not feature as a topic at the previous EU-African Union (AU) summit back in 2017, it certainly will do at the upcoming summit next week.

The much-awaited sixth meeting of the EU’s and AU’s heads of states and governments will take place in Brussels on 17-18 February, two years after the European Commission published its blueprint for a ‘strategic partnership’ with Africa.

But also two years into the COVID-19 pandemic and more than a year into vaccinating against the virus. Therefore, this time, health is quite high on the summit agenda.

Leaders from the EU and AU will discuss “health systems and vaccine production” (amongst other things) as a part of the partnership between the two continents.

The reason is, of course, that the COVID-19 pandemic has made global health inequality painfully visible.

Currently, just 11.3% of people are fully vaccinated on the African continent, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, an agency of the African Union that supports public health initiatives.

The European Commission and various EU leaders have not been shy to praise their contribution to the COVAX scheme, the global vaccine-sharing programme. Nevertheless, large parts of the populations in many African countries remain unvaccinated.

According to a recent statement (3 February) by the World Health Organisation’s Regional Office for Africa, the continent “needs to ramp up COVID-19 vaccination six-fold” if they still wish to meet the target of 70% vaccinated by mid-2022.

“Africa is now accessing the vaccines it has demanded far too long. This is a dose of hope for this year,” Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, said in the press release.

“However, a dependable pipeline must go hand in hand with operational funding to move doses out of depots and into people’s arms,” she added.

Getting the vaccines to the people

Following the worldwide discussions on global access to vaccines has been a true rollercoaster ride.

Most of the vaccines were hoarded by the world’s wealthiest countries, and ever since India and South Africa proposed to suspend intellectual property (IP) rights for COVID-19 treatments in October 2020, the different EU countries haven’t been able to find a common stance.

In the meantime, COVAX has delivered more than a billion vaccine doses to low and middle-income countries but is currently suffering a cash shortage to afford syringes and other items, such as safety boxes. This has left it unable to accept new vaccine donations.

It is against this backdrop that the summit will take place. The EU is set to offer a new programme on vaccine sharing and donations, but the exact details will not be available until later.

One thing that has been promised by Charles Michel, president of the European Council, is the greater inclusion of African perspectives in defining the content of the roundtables, including the one about “health systems and vaccine production”.

“The preparation of this summit shows [a] change of model and paradigm, with the declared will to integrate African expectations of the EU and to propose concrete actions based on the solutions proposed by our partners,” Michel in an interview published in Jeune Afrique.

Preparations for pandemics yet to come

What is also expected at the summit is the launch of a €1 billion initiative to expand pharmaceutical production capacity in Africa, which includes regional actions to support the Partnership on Africa Vaccine Manufacturing (PAVM) and technology transfer.

Speaking to EU lawmakers on 19 January, French President Emmanuel Macron advocated for an increased focus on technology transfer to scale up vaccine production and increase global accessibility.

“Firstly, you have to transfer the technology and create the capacity,” Macron said, adding that technology should be transferred to Africa.

“[Anytime there is a need] we lift all restrictions in terms of capacity, intellectual property, and technology transfer so that we can ensure that capacities can be developed in Africa,” Macron explained, stressing the need to finance the structures that produce vaccines and create partnerships.

Despite these recent remarks, a COVID mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub was already established in South Africa in June 2021.

The hub is run by a South African consortium consisting of Biovac, Afrigen Biologics and Vaccines, a network of universities and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), supported by the WHO.

According to the WHO, the first batches of COVID-19 mRNA vaccines have already been produced.

“There’s a governance mechanism, a steering committee, many partners and a huge amount of interest, both from donors and recipient countries. The technology has [already] come to a certain stage,” chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said at a WHO briefing last Friday (4 February).

“The other element is capacity building around all of this. That capacity building is both for people who will work in the facilities in the factories and there needs to be a research ecosystem in the country, ethics review (…),” she added.

When we get closer to the EU-AU summit, we will have more on what to expect when it comes to health. So stay tuned…

(by Amalie Holmgaard Mersh)

Subscribe to EURACTIV’s Health Brief, where you’ll find the latest roundup of news covering Health from across Europe. The Health Brief is brought to you by EURACTIV’s Health Team Giedrė Peseckytė, Clara Bauer-Babef, Amalie Holmgaard Mersh, Gerardo Fortuna, and Natasha Foote.

Short News

EU News

Addressing women’s cancers. The European Commission has launched four new EU Cancer Plan initiatives focusing on women’s cancers and inequality across the bloc ahead of World Cancer Day. In the meantime, WHO’s International Agency for Research of Cancer (IARC) launched on Friday (4 February) an online platform to promote prevention globally and the development of Regional Codes to help fight the disease.

HERA. European lawmakers must be present and involved in the work of the newly established Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA), according to the body’s head, Pierre Delsaux.

COVID

Vaccine donations. Talks between wealthy nations on how to report donated COVID vaccines have collapsed after they failed to agree on a common rules regime.

Comirnaty in adolescents. EMA has started evaluating an application for the use of a booster dose of Comirnaty (BioNTech/Pfizer’s vaccine) in adolescents aged 12 to 15 on Tuesday (8 February). An application in older adolescents, aged 16 to 17, is also ongoing.

South African Moderna. South Africa’s Afrigen Biologics has used the publicly available sequence of Moderna Inc’s mRNA COVID-19 vaccine to make its own version of the shot, which could be tested in humans before the end of this year, Afrigen’s top executive said on Thursday (3 February).

Booster. ECDC report “COVID-19 vaccine effectiveness in adolescents aged 12-17 and interim public health considerations for administration of a booster dose”, released on Tuesday (8 February), found that as of 30 January, 80% of adolescents aged 15-17 and 35% of 10-14-year-olds completed the primary course of COVID-19 vaccination. At the same time, over half of adolescents aged 10 to 17 in the EU/EEA have not yet completed a primary course. It is noted that the booster uptake varies across EU/EEA countries. 

Face masks. On Monday (7 February) ECDC updated mask-wearing recommendations. It was highlighted that wearing a face mask can help reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the community by reducing the release of respiratory droplets from asymptomatic/pre-symptomatic individuals or those with mild non-specific symptoms.

Health services. The WHO global pulse survey on continuity of essential health services during the COVID-19 pandemic, conducted at the end of 2021 and published on Monday (7 February), found that all major health areas faced disruptions across services, “including sexual, reproductive, maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health, immunization, nutrition, cancer care, mental, neurological and substance use disorders, HIV, hepatitis, TB, malaria, neglected tropical diseases and care for older people”. Additionally, even as COVID-19 vaccination has scaled up, increased disruptions were reported in routine immunization services.

MoU on COVID. On Monday (7 February) The Commonwealth Secretariat and the World Health Organisation (WHO) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that focuses on ending the COVID-19 pandemic, advancing Universal Health Coverage, addressing vaccine equity, strengthening digital health systems and working towards global health security. 

Mental health

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictive measures that worsened the mental well-being of European citizens, the EU has no comprehensive plan to tackle this pressing issue. A group of MEPs are calling for change as mental health is often overshadowed by other diseases.

Plasma

The debate over compensating plasma donations remains one of the most sensitive issues in the revision of the EU’s blood, tissue, and cells legislation.

Telework

On 2 February, The World Health Organisation and the International Labour Organisation called for measures to be put in place to protect workers’ health while teleworking. A new technical brief to healthy and safe teleworking, outlined not only potential benefits but also warned that it can “lead to isolation, burnout, depression, home violence, musculoskeletal and other injuries, eye strain, increase in smoking and alcohol consumption, prolonged sitting and screen time and unhealthy weight gain,” as it is stated in the release.

Female genital mutilation

Marking International Day of Zero Tolerance for female genital mutilation on Sunday (6 February), two new tools are being been launched by WHO and HRP to help health care providers give the best quality care to girls and women who have been subjected to female genital mutilation – and to also support global efforts to end this harmful practice and human rights violation. These are: Person-centred communication for female genital mutilation prevention: A facilitator’s guide for training healthcare providers and Integrating female genital mutilation content into nursing and midwifery curricula: a practical guide.

ROME | MADRID

Italy, Spain soon to lift outdoor facemask rule. Facemasks will no longer be mandatory outdoors in Spain and Italy, the two governments have confirmed joining the club of EU nations relaxing COVID-related restrictions. By Eleonora Vasques and Fernando Heller |  EURACTIV.com and EuroEFE.EURACTIV.es

BRATISLAVA

Most Slovaks reject idea of unvaccinated paying for COVID treatment. Two-thirds of Slovaks are not in favour of the unvaccinated having to pay for their COVID-19 treatment, a new survey published by the Focus agency shows. By  Michal Hudec |  EURACTIV.sk

BUDAPEST 

Hungarian government overrides court decision on press COVID access. A government decree that came into force on 5 February effectively overruled the decision of a Budapest district court on press access to hospitals during COVID, despite earlier promises to respect the judgement, Telex reported. By  Vlagyiszlav Makszimov |  EURACTIV.com with Telex

SOFIA

A high-ranking government expert has said the green pass could be abolished by March as its political price is becoming too high for the new government. The Prime Minister’s Pandemic Adviser, Professor Radka Argirova, predicts that Omicron’s peak in the country will be between 8-10 February, after which the green certificate can be abolished.  By  Krassen Nikolov |  EURACTIV.bg

BUCHAREST

Romania vaccinates more than 5,000 children in a week. Romania started the vaccination against COVID-19 of children aged 5-11 a week ago, and more than 5,350 children got their first dose during this period. By  Bogdan Neagu |  EURACTIV.ro

LISBON

Portuguese tourism sector pleased with looser Covid arrival requirements. The easing of entry restrictions into Portugal, namely the end of the mandatory negative test for COVID-19 for those with a digital certificate is highly positive, the Confederation of Tourism of Portugal (CTP) said on Thursday. By  Pedro Emídio |  Lusa.pt

PARIS

France lightens conditions for obtaining vaccine pass. People who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and have been infected with the virus will no longer have to take the third dose to obtain the vaccine pass, Health Minister Olivier Véran announced on broadcaster BFMTV Wednesday night. This was confirmed Thursday by the ministry. By  Davide Basso |  EURACTIV.fr

TIRANA

Albania not ready to scale back COVID-19 restrictions as vaccination remains low. It is too early to declare victory over the COVID-19 pandemic, said Health Minister Ogerta Manastirliu,  noting that the vaccination rate for two doses has reached 56%. By  Alice Taylor |  exit.al

9 February – ACT-Accelerator Advocacy Campaign launch event

9 February – The European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual & Reproductive Rights (EPF) launch the fifth edition of the “European Contraception Policies Atlas”

9 February –   Foreign and Health ministers press conference organised by French presidency to develop a European health policy (Lyon)

10 February – Health European ministers and Stella Kyriakides press conference organised by French presidency (Grenoble)

10 February – EPHA event on Air Pollution and Health: Improving Air Quality and Tackling Epidemics. 

15 February – Euronews virtual debate on innovation in rare diseases. 

21 February – European Health Union – not wishful thinking, but a reflection of Europeans’ real concerns.

17-18 February – European Union/African Union summit.

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