15 Apr 2020   |   News

Mass testing and data gathering at core of EU COVID-19 exit plan

Brussels provides route map for countries as they can begin lifting sweeping restrictions

Photo: European Commission

The EU has called on member states to ramp up COVID-19 diagnostic capacity in hospitals, care centres and special test facilities to ease the continent’s exit from stringent lockdowns.

In a 15-page exit strategy published Wednesday, the European Commission warned its 27 member states to move cautiously as they return to normal life and to base their actions on scientific advice.

“De-escalating from COVID-19-imposed measures in a coordinated manner is a matter of common European interest,” the plan states.

“Any level of gradual relaxation of the confinement will unavoidably lead to a corresponding increase in new cases. This will require constant and detailed monitoring as well as the readiness to adjust and reintroduce new measures if needed,” the commission said.

At the heart of the strategy is a plan to reopen businesses gradually while scaling up tracing and testing resources as a way of controlling COVID-19.

EU states like Austria, the Czech Republic and Denmark have begun lifting some lockdown measures, which has piled pressure on Brussels to rush out its roadmap and head off an uncoordinated and potentially disastrous easing of restrictions around the bloc.

Special-purpose mobile apps are recommended for tracking the virus, but they should be voluntary for the public, the plan says.

The technology works by warning individuals of an increased risk due to contact with a person tested positive for COVID-19. “These applications can help interrupt infection chains and reduce the risk of further virus transmission,” the paper says.

Tracing proximity between mobile devices should be allowed only on an anonymous and aggregated basis, without any tracking of citizens, and names of possibly infected persons should not be disclosed to other users. “When using tracing apps, users should remain in control of their data,” the commission says.

The technology, which has been deployed against COVID-19 in Singapore, China and Israel, should meet “demanding transparency requirements” and be deactivated as soon as the crisis is over and any remaining data erased.

The commission is offering its in-house expertise at the Joint Research Centre and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control to centralise the data and modelling work. 

Europe last month pressed the pause button on ordinary economic and social life to buy enough time for beleaguered hospitals to adapt to a huge influx of patients, with countries including Italy, France, Spain and the UK seeing some of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the world.

The lockdown strategy has slowed the spread of the deadly virus, but at a cost that can’t be sustained indefinitely. The International Monetary Fund on Tuesday warned of a global slump this year unparalleled since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Next week, EU leaders will discuss the possibility of creating a European "Marshall Plan", worth billions of euros, to stimulate economic recovery.

Schools and universities are among the category of premises the commission suggests could re-open soon but, before this happens, governments should consider precautions including “different lunch times, enhanced cleaning, smaller classrooms and increased reliance on e-learning”.

The EU says a gap of around one month should be left between re-opening steps “as [their] effect can only be measured over time.”

After initial success in restraining COVID-19, Singapore, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other Asian states have seen coronavirus surge back after relaxing restrictions.

Align on tests

EU states are recommended to expand their ability to test for the virus, enabling health services to adequately prepare for it. “The availability of large-scale testing…is a precondition for lifting social distancing measures in the future,” the paper says.

Testing capacity has grown in Europe, but at markedly different rates between countries.

The UK government has pledged 100,000 coronavirus tests a day by the end of the month, but has faced criticism for not increasing the number faster. Germany, by comparison, has carried out more than three times as many tests as the UK.

Governments are recommended to align on testing methodologies in order to achieve comparable results, with Brussels pledging guidelines on different COVID-19 tests and their performance.

The roadmap also promises additional finance for a vaccine – the true exit strategy, which could take anywhere between 12 and 24 months under the most optimistic scenarios.  

Both the EU and European Medicines Agency will streamline regulatory steps for the vaccine, from clinical trials to marketing authorisations, to ensure the process goes as fast as possible.

Large and – “as much as possible European” – clinical trials will be prioritised “to generate the robust data required” for the vaccine, the paper says. Joint procurement for mass purchases of potential COVID-19 therapies, to fight the disease in the meantime, is “at an advanced stage of preparation”. 

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