The Portuguese Minister for Health, Marta Temido, chaired an informal video conference of Health Ministers from Lisbon this Friday, where issues regarding European Union vaccination plans, as well as the SARS-CoV-2 variants in circulation, were discussed.
Held under the scope of the Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the European Union, the meeting focused on collecting and sharing information in order to define the next steps in the vaccination plans of the Member States, aimed at finding the most harmonised position possible in terms of future vaccine procurement agreements, through a common portfolio, and to analyse the technologies that should be given priority in these contracts.
Marta Temido added that the strategy to be implemented for 2022-2023 should take into account not only the characteristics of each vaccine, production capacity and the need to bolster vaccination efforts, but also the appearance of new variants, which could be more infectious and/or more resistant to current and future vaccines.
The Minister for Health then reviewed the situation regarding the variants, recalling that “the rapid spread of new COVID-19 variants calls for a paradigm shift. Adequate vigilance and detection of these variants are essential for monitoring and assessing their potential impact on transmissibility and the severity of the disease and for determining the control measures to be adopted”, she stressed.
Marta Temido also called for a harmonised position in the EU, which is “essential to a successful COVID-19 vaccination strategy”.
On the day when the European Commission announced the signing of another contract with Pfizer for the acquisition of 1.8 billion doses of vaccines, Stella Kyriakides pointed to the European Union spirit: “We need to do more and to do it together.”
Highlighting the importance of the European Union continuing to work with the vaccine producers, the European Commissioner for Health went on to refer to the constant vigilance demanded by the appearance of new variants and the relevance of “genome sequencing, which is crucial to identifying new variants”. “Science has evolved rapidly, but we must keep on top of the new variants that are appearing”, she stressed.
Andrea Ammon, Director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), highlighted the “transition phase” that the pandemic is going through, with the circulation of new variants, along with good progress in vaccination, “which requires being attentive to the two areas”. Recalling that societies are slowly reopening, “it is important to reinforce immunisation, so that a large part of the population can be vaccinated”. Even so, a series of non-pharmacological measures should remain in place”, the ECDC director cautioned.
Emer Cooke, from the European Medicines Agency (EMA), highlighted concerns with vaccine production capacity and logistics issues. However, she also pointed to the prospect of it now being possible to store the Pfizer vaccine at normal refrigerator temperatures for around a month, “which will help with logistics”.
As to the possible need for booster shots, or a third dose – to boost the immunity of vaccinated people – the executive director of EMA said that studies are still underway to analyse this possibility.
Emer Cooke also said that Europe should have three new treatments for COVID-19 by October. “New [treatment] products are appearing almost daily and we are analysing them”, she said.
The extension of vaccination plans to other groups of people, such as teenagers (aged 12-16) and pregnant women, was one to the topics discussed during information sharing between the Members States, which mostly agreed on the importance of remaining attentive to the appearance of new variants, the reinforcement of compliance with vaccine delivery deadlines by the pharmaceutical companies and the need to include different vaccine technologies in the European portfolio of joint acquisitions of COVID-19 vaccines.