Coronavirus: EU ministers tackle risks of shortages

BRUSSELS (AP) — Fearing a possible shortage in protective equipment, health ministers from the European Union are holding an emergency meeting to try to improve their collective response to the novel coronavirus outbreak.

While Italy is the hardest-hit country in Europe, more than 4,000 confirmed cases have been recorded across the 27-nation bloc. The epidemic has been spreading at a quicker pace over the past two weeks, leading the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) to raise the risk of coronavirus infection from moderate to high.

The last time EU health ministers met, on Feb. 13, no death had been reported in Europe. According to the latest figures released by the ECDC, 112 people have now died from the virus on the continent.

“Today is about solidarity, preparedness, and about coordination,” said Stella Kyriakides, the European Commissioner for health.

Europe largely relies on China and India for drugs and protective equipment. Many European countries agree that the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, should speed up the joint procurement process it launched two weeks ago that allows the EU to buy urgent medical supplies for its members.

As contagion fears have led to shortages of face masks and sanitising hand gels, French President Emmanuel Macron said this week the government is requisitioning all current and future stocks of protective masks.

“We don’t have enough protective masks,” said Czech health minister Adam Vojtech as he joined the meeting. “The problem is that the demand is much higher than the supply. A third of the world’s production of drugs is located in China and also in India, which as far as I know also has stopped exports of drugs recently.”

Croatian Health Minister Vili Beros said the meeting should also help member states to better coordinate measures taken at national level that differ from one country to the other. Italy, for instance, has closed all schools and universities and barred fans from all sporting events for the next few weeks. In neighboring France, the Paris-Nice bike race will go ahead as planned this weekend, while soccer games continue to be played in Belgium.

“We should emphasize the importance of communication between member states and toward the public,” Beros said. “That can help us fight the disease.”

Asked about the bloc’s dependence on medical chains in China and India, Danish health minister Magnus Heunicke said the EU should consider building a new strategy in the long term. But “right now, we are focusing on making sure we have the medicine we need.”

___

The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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