By Jan Strupczewski and Gabriela Baczynska
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union leaders will meet on Thursday to try to speed up production and rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in a race against the emergence of new variants that some fear could bring a third wave of the pandemic across the continent.
They will also consider how to strike the right balance between restrictions to stop the spread of infection and keeping borders open for the smooth movement of goods and services in the single market.
“The pressure on everyone is now at a maximum,” an EU official said ahead of the 27 leaders’ video conference, which begins at 1400 GMT. “This virus doesn’t care about borders, so if we don’t coordinate, we’re not going to get out of this together.”
Although infection rates are down in about 20 of the bloc’s member states, there are fears of new spikes if a British variant spreads to become the dominant strain.
Sweden announced Wednesday it would shorten opening hours for all restaurants, bars and cafes and limit the number of people allowed in stores to ward off a third wave.
The Czech government was set to impose tighter restrictions Thursday after Prime Minister Andrej Babis warned that hospitals face a “catastrophe” if no action is taken.
And in France, where infection rates are on the rise again, the government has ordered a lockdown in the Dunkirk region and signaled that new restrictions could be imposed elsewhere.
The EU Commission and EU member states themselves have come under fire for making mistakes in procuring vaccines, and the rollout has stuttered, lagging behind Israel, Britain and the United States.
The European Commission has said supply bottlenecks that have hampered the start of vaccination programs will soon be resolved, but member states want assurances that vaccine delivery will go more smoothly and that new vaccines can be produced quickly to cope with new variants.
“We urgently need to integrate and strategically manage our vaccine production capacity in Europe,” leaders of five EU countries said in a joint letter ahead of the summit. “The approach should reflect that we cannot afford to lose this battle.”
The European Medicines Agency regulator is expected to issue guidelines this week to speed up approval of vaccines modified for new variants of the coronavirus.
EU leaders will agree during their meeting to work on vaccination certificates for citizens who have been vaccinated against the coronavirus, as southern countries that rely heavily on tourism desperately try to save this summer’s vacation season.
Lockdowns to contain the pandemic caused the deepest economic recession in the EU last year, hitting the south of the EU particularly hard.
However, some countries – such as France and Germany – are wary of EU-wide certificates for those already vaccinated, as this could create a de facto vaccination requirement and discriminate against those unable or unwilling to be vaccinated.