Coronavirus Global situation

EU to lay out plan for easing curbs amid AstraZeneca setback

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Europe's medicines watchdog on Tuesday said the benefits of AstraZeneca's Covid-19 vaccine continue to outweigh the risks after several countries halted its use due to concerns about blood clots.

BRUSSELS • The European Union will start plotting its strategy to gradually lift coronavirus lockdowns, even as an AstraZeneca vaccine scare risks causing additional delays to the bloc's botched immunisation campaign.

"There is reason to look forward to a substantial reduction in the prevalence of the virus, raising the prospect of a lifting of the restrictions weighing on citizens and the economy alike," the European Commission will say in a policy document to be unveiled today.

The coordinated lifting of lockdowns will be based on a tier "system reflecting the epidemiological situation in each member state", the commission will say. The document's publication is coming as a surge in contagion across the continent is forcing governments to prolong or reimpose restrictions.

The tier system, due to be proposed by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), will simulate how much latitude each government has to lighten curbs "without risking a reversal in the spread of the virus".

The ECDC will aim to launch the system next month, the draft says.

The EU wants to vaccinate the bulk of its adult population against the virus by the end of summer, paving the way for a return to a semblance of normalcy.

London-based research firm Airfinity said the suspended roll-out of AstraZeneca's Covid-19 vaccine in some EU countries over concerns about possible side effects could delay the goal of immunising three-quarters of the population by up to a month.

Still, the draft confirms the EU is expecting 300 million doses to be distributed to members in the second quarter of the year, which may help accelerate the bloc's sluggish inoculation programmes.

The commission is expected to say that inoculations are just one piece of the reopening puzzle.

Also today, the EU's executive arm will publish a legislative proposal for a digital pass certifying that holders have been vaccinated, tested negative or recovered from the coronavirus.

The latest draft of the "Digital Green Certificate" regulation allows for vaccines authorised by national governments but not by the European Medicines Agency to be included in the certificate.

The document suggests that it will be up to each individual member state to decide whether those inoculated with such shots are considered immune and therefore safe to travel, according to a person familiar with the proposals.

Hungary has already started administering vaccines manufactured in Russia and China, which have yet to receive approval by the EU's medicine regulator.

The decision to include vaccines in the certificate that have not received pan-European authorisation could help ease travel from outside the bloc, helping tourism-dependent economies draw more visitors. The pass will include a mechanism to provide for shots administered in non-EU countries.

Preparations should start "on a common approach to the gradual lifting of restrictions, to ensure that efforts are coordinated when the epidemiological situation allows for an easing of current measures", EU leaders will say in a joint communique next week.

Work on interoperable vaccine "certificates should be taken forward as a matter of priority", the leaders will say, according to a draft of their statement.

The introduction of such passes is intended to ease travel for those not considered to be carrying the virus. The EU hopes member states will approve the proposal swiftly so the certificates are in place by mid-June.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 17, 2021, with the headline EU to lay out plan for easing curbs amid AstraZeneca setback. Subscribe