Brussels is set to announce plans to invest millions of euros in research into new variants of the coronavirus as it seeks to scale up its response to the rapidly evolving pandemic.
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, is preparing to announce funding of 150 million euros for research on new mutant strains of the pathogen and related work, using funds from the Horizon scientific research program of the ‘EU.
In addition, at least € 75 million in EU funding will be spent on developing specialized tests for emerging variants of the disease, according to people familiar with the plan.
The spending is part of von der Leyen’s effort to regain the lead on the coronavirus battle after weeks of critical headlines about the bloc’s slow inoculation rollout. A big question that has been raised is whether the commission and member states have invested enough money up front to spur companies’ efforts to develop vaccines and strengthen their manufacturing capabilities.
Earlier this month, von der Leyen admitted to the European Parliament that the committee had made errors in the public procurement strategy, it is carried out with the Member States. Brussels had been too late to approve some Covid-19 injections, overly optimistic about vaccine manufacturing capacity and overly confident that doses would be delivered on time, she said.
The head of the committee is expected to unveil the new strategy to fight against variants on Wednesday, alongside Stella Kyriakides, Commissioner for Health, and Thierry Breton, Commissioner for the Internal Market.
Their plan aims to confront strains of mutant viruses that could prove resistant to existing vaccines deployed in Europe. South Africa already has paused The rollout of the Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine after a university study appeared to show little protection against mild and moderate illnesses caused by a new strain first identified in the country.
The objective of the commission will be to ensure rapid detection of mutant versions of the virus, allowing the rapid adaptation of vaccines to new threats. The proposed measures include a framework for patent holders to confidentially share intellectual property with partners in order to enable the production of effective jabs against variants.
The committee also wants to help research by setting up a network of clinical trials between EU countries and some outside the bloc, notably Switzerland and Israel. It will encourage states to boost genome sequencing – setting a sequencing target of 5% of positive tests. EU diplomats stressed the importance of the relatively high level of sequencing carried out in the UK for identifying emerging viral mutations.
The commission’s plan will also seek to accelerate regulatory approval of updated vaccines – potentially following the model already in use for influenza vaccines – and accelerate the authorization of new manufacturing capabilities for suitable vaccines. He could also discuss a new category of emergency approvals for vaccines.
The committee also wants to update its existing vaccine advance purchase agreements or enter into new ones, using them to support the development of new suitable jabs with the help of EU funding.
The plan will involve developing the capacity to produce existing and suitable vaccines. This includes setting up a network of factories that can always be ready to produce jabs.
The commission’s initiative comes as it works on a new Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA) that aims to strengthen the bloc’s capacity to respond quickly to emerging future health threats.
Von der Leyen said in an interview with Les Echos on Tuesday that she wanted to bring together health authorities and laboratories in a “HERA incubator” as the EU fights the worrying emergence of new variants.
The commission is under political pressure to strengthen its response to the evolving pandemic. Dacian Ciolos, Chairman of the Renew Europe Group in the European Parliament, said: “As new, more dangerous variants emerge, Europe must get behind the wheel to avoid a perpetual pandemic.
“Individual countries are setting up programs to identify new variants, but this needs to be better coordinated at European level, with corresponding research resources.”
The commission declined to comment.