Michel urges EU capitals to adopt common, faster coronavirus testing

Amid soaring infections and a risk of health systems becoming overwhelmed, Council President Charles Michel on Tuesday called on EU national governments to adopt common, faster tests for the coronavirus, as part of a more coordinated approach to fighting the pandemic.

Michel’s proposal, issued two days before EU heads of state and government are due to discuss the pandemic by videoconference, would also include better contact tracing and uniform guidelines for self-isolation and quarantine.

But Michel, writing in a newsletter for citizens, did not offer any suggestions for how EU countries might support each other in the event that health care systems become overwhelmed and some regions begin to run out of critical care beds — currently a serious risk in the Czech Republic and in parts of Belgium and the Netherlands. The International Red Cross has warned that hospitals are filling up and more shortages are possible in the coming weeks.

Michel praised the EU for quickly agreeing an historic rescue package but said not enough had been done to prevent the second wave of the virus.

“Within the space of just a few weeks, the situation has escalated from worrying to alarming,” he wrote. “Now we must avoid a tragedy.”

But in the absence of a vaccine, he said EU governments had failed to contain the pandemic through testing and tracing.

“Until the anticipated vaccines start to be administered on a massive scale, the only way to contain the epidemic while maintaining activity is to identify infected persons at a very early stage so that they can self-isolate and avoid infecting others,” he wrote. “At European level, this plan of action has not achieved the desired results.”

For testing, Michel proposed that governments adopt quicker, but at times less effective, antigen tests, which can yield results in as little as 15 minutes as a supplement to the more widely used “PCR” tests typically performed with a nose swab. And he urged EU governments, which have been reluctant to cede their legal authority over health policy, to coordinate and adopt a common approach to when citizens must self-quarantine or isolate.

“The EU Member States must reach consensus on common rules for self-isolation and quarantine,” he wrote. “There is nothing inherently complicated about this; it is made difficult only by the numerous levels of governance, and is therefore a question of political will.”

In the newsletter, Michel also offered some detailed ideas about coordinating efforts on vaccines — but some of those details seemed potentially premature given no vaccine is yet proven effective and ready for mass manufacture and distribution.

“Our strategy and our efforts must go beyond the development and marketing of vaccines,” Michel wrote. “We must avoid chaos at all costs; we must define criteria for distributing vaccines among the various countries of Europe. It is also important to identify priority groups to whom the vaccines should be administered.”

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