So much for coordination: EU countries ignore pandemic lessons amid China’s COVID surge

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It didn’t take long for EU countries to abandon the biggest lesson of the pandemic. 

The principle of collective response to health threats, which underpins the European Union’s so-called Health Union, was ignored at the first sign of trouble. 

All it took was a surge in COVID cases in China for several EU countries to go their own way and implement travel measures that the bloc’s scientific experts have criticized as “unjustified.” 

With China abandoning its zero-COVID policy, countries such as the U.S. and Japan have tightened border controls for travelers from China. Italy was the first EU country to act, imposing mandatory testing for travelers arriving from China, leaving the EU to scramble to get ahead of another disjointed bloc-wide response that marked some of the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A meeting of the EU Security Committee on Thursday resulted in countries deciding to not take any joint measures on travel, with the Commission tweeting that “coordination of national responses to serious cross border threats to health is crucial.” But that hasn’t stopped Spain from imposing its own measures, with the health ministry announcing Friday that travelers arriving from China need to be fully vaccinated or have a negative test.

The fear from countries like Italy, the U.S., Japan and now Spain is that China could be a breeding ground for new variants. But the current scientific opinion is that this is unlikely, given that China is way behind the curve when it comes to variants and those that are present in China won’t be able to compete with the strains circulating outside the country. 

But that’s not stopping an EU political spat from kicking off. 

With Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni urging the EU to take joint action, acknowledging that action by Italy alone “may not be completely effective unless it is taken by the whole EU,” she’s being joined by prominent EU parliamentarians. The head of the European Parliament’s center-right bloc, the European People’s Party’s Manfred Weber, has called for bloc-wide mandatory testing for travelers from China.

Knee-jerk responses

There are echoes of earlier national differences on COVID policies, “with more competition rather than coordination about what to do,” said Paul Belcher, consultant in European public health and adviser to the European Public Health Alliance. But Belcher said this was finally overcome with joint approaches on things such as vaccines and new EU structures that made decision-making processes easier. 

These included the new EU Health Union, which is meant to ensure better health security coordination when a crisis hits. The underpinning principle? Prepare and respond collectively.

Now, the disagreements over China “show that this default to knee-jerk national responses hasn’t entirely gone away,” said Belcher. 

EU countries aren’t done with discussing the issue. POLITICO’s Brussels Playbook reports that the Council’s so-called integrated political crisis response mechanism — the EU’s defacto crisis forum — will take place next week.

Patients in the lobby of the Chongqing No. 5 People’s Hospital in Chongqing | Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images

European Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides also indicated to health ministers in a letter sent Thursday evening that the situation was “evolving.” She said that countries should assess their national practices regarding genomic surveillance of the virus — and to scale up capacity if needed — plus implement wastewater surveillance, including sewage water from airports.

“If a new variant of the SARS-CoV2 virus appears — be it in China or in the EU — we must detect it early in order to be prepared to react fast,” Kyriakides said in the letter seen by POLITICO. Guidance from the Commission is also on its way.

Where Kyriakides did express concern was with the lack of reliable epidemiological data coming out of China. The health commissioner has also reached out to her Chinese counterparts and offered public health expertise including variant-adapted EU vaccine donation.

China’s secrecy is also a concern raised by World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has called for “more detailed information” from China.

“In the absence of comprehensive information from #China, it is understandable that countries around the world are acting in ways that they believe may protect their populations,” he tweeted. 

Carlo Martuscelli contributed reporting.

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