The majority of countries in Europe are falling short on tracking coronavirus variants, such as those first detected in the UK, South Africa and Brazil – meaning more contagious strains are spreading undetected.
“In the European Union, we are strengthening our ability to identify and monitor new variants, but we are not yet there,” the chief of the surveillance section at European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), Bruno Ciancio, said on Monday (15 March) during a public hearing in the European Parliament’s health committee.
Only Ireland, Italy, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, Denmark, and Finland, together with non-EU Iceland and Norway, have increased genome sequencing to at least 10 percent of positive test results – the level recommended for detecting and monitoring the emergence and dominance of these strains.
Genome sequencing reveals the virus’ genetic information, which allows researchers to identify changes in genes. This is considered crucial to understanding the progress of the virus behaviour, and, accordingly, the role of adapted vaccines.
Meanwhile, the ECDC is itself sequencing genomes on behalf of those member states that have very limited or none genome-sequencing capacity – such as Bulgaria, Malta, Cyprus, Greece, Slovakia and Slovenia.
“We need to invest in member states abilities to perform this type of advanced diagnostic,” Ciancio warned, adding that the current approach is “not sustainable in the long-term”.
The EU agency is meanwhile considering supporting member states with sample collection.
“It is concerning that not enough countries are doing genomic sequencing of Covid-19, [but] it is clear that the strategy against variants needs to be global,” leftwing MEP Silvia Modig said.
For influenza, for example, the WHO provides countries with guidance, technical support and coordination of activities essential to make their health systems better prepared for the next influenza season.
The so-called UK variant, which is up to 75 percent more transmissible, is spreading significantly across Europe – with some 24,000 cases officially registered in EU/EAA countries.
It continues to predominate in new cases reported in the UK, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Denmark, among others. In Germany, it is now responsible for 22 percent of new infections.
Liberal MEP Nils Torvalds warned “the more infections we have, the more variants we will have, meaning we will need to live with these variants for the next five to ten years”.
Under its new HERA Incubator programme, the European Commission wants to mobilise €75m to support member states with genomic sequencing.
Modified vaccines to be approved ‘in weeks’
The commission will soon propose speeding up the regulatory approval for adapted vaccines.
Marco Cavalieri, head of the European Medicine Agency’s vaccine evaluation team, told MEPs on Monday that the approval of adapted vaccines will be “a matter of weeks” – maybe even shorter.
Under the proposal for adapted vaccines, companies will not be obliged to submit an entire file from scratch as the new shot would be approved as “a kind of variation” of doses that have been already approved by the EU agency.
Moreover, manufacturers will be able to ask for the approval of different modified vaccines under the same marketing authorisation application.
Cavalieri said that early studies show that vaccines approved in the EU are demonstrating high efficiency against coronavirus variants.
Until now, BioNtech/Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Johnson&Johnson vaccines are the only jabs approved in the EU.