Brussels warns of Covid vaccination fatigue as it urges fresh drive for jabs

Brussels is warning of a vaccination “plateau” in the EU despite surging Covid-19 cases as it calls for member states to intensify campaigns ahead of the autumn and winter.

EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides said there was a risk that people were letting their guard down in the summer months and that health ministries need to do more to prepare for wider outbreaks despite understandable “fatigue” in populations about the pandemic.

“We need to increase vaccinations, we need to widen the coverage of boosters, and we need to make sure health systems are ready to cope with future waves,” she said in an interview. “I’m concerned that vaccinations have plateaued over the last few months, and we have seen possibly contact tracing and testing not being so intensive.”

Kyriakides’s remarks came after the Financial Times reported the EU, member states and BioNTech/Pfizer held talks to delay part of their deliveries to 2024 amid a glut of shots, with the plan receiving tentative backing from the companies and Brussels.

The current contract only extends to 2023. Some Moderna deliveries have potentially been pushed back to the first few months of next year, even if the contract only covers 2022.

Stella Kyriakides, the EU health commissioner
EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides said the plateau in testing arose from a widely held feeling that the pandemic was possibly on a downward spiral or was over © John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

Kyriakides spoke after writing to EU health ministers warning of a “concerning surge” in cases under way in the EU, including increasing rates of severe illness and hospital and intensive care admissions, urging them to do more to prepare for what could be a rough autumn and winter in the bloc.

The steps the commissioner is urging include implementing year-round surveillance and testing capacity for acute respiratory illnesses this winter and beyond, as well as lining up ample healthcare supplies and being prepared to reintroduce masks and social distancing.

But she made it clear the insipid pace of vaccination campaigns is a key concern given the brief window faced before the cold and flu season.

In early July, European health agencies recommended extending eligibility for second booster shots of Covid vaccines to those over the age of 60, as highly transmissible variants drive up hospital admissions across the continent.

Despite that advice, less than 65 per cent of adults have been boosted in the EU, while nearly 15 per cent are not vaccinated at all.

“The summer months are months when we need to increase our preparedness for what could come ahead, in terms of vaccines, therapeutics and medical equipment,” she said.

It was appropriate for over-60s and vulnerable groups to get the extra booster immediately to ensure they are protected against the wave that is under way, Kyriakides said. Asked if she thought there would need to be freshly adapted jabs for the latest variants driving infections in the EU, Kyriakides insisted that the vaccines already available remained effective against the versions of the virus that are circulating.

The sluggish pace of vaccinations could partly be attributed to citizens waiting for the arrival of vaccines adapted for new variants, which could get approval in September, the commissioner said. But individuals instead needed to get vaccinated “as quickly as possible” with the current vaccines.

The plateau, she said, was due to various issues, including “the feeling that the pandemic was possibly on a downward spiral or was over”, as well as a sense of vaccine fatigue.

“It comes from a lot of discussion that the common vaccines are not protective, so let’s wait for new adapted vaccines that will come out in the autumn or winter. There are a lot of factors there.” But she stressed: “There is no time to lose.”

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