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COVID-19: Call for Europe to make own medicines amid fears of shortages

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By Alastair Jamieson
French lab scientists could be involved in finding a vaccine for COVID-19 coronavirus
French lab scientists could be involved in finding a vaccine for COVID-19 coronavirus   -   Copyright  (AP Photo/Francois Mori)   -   Francois Mori

Europe is working with China to meet a shortfall in protective equipment against the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, ministers said on Thursday amid fears of a global shortage of drugs and masks.

At an emergency meeting in Brussels, European Union health ministers agreed to boost preparations and organise a coordinated response to prevent the virus that emerged in China from further spreading across Europe.

They said more planning was needed to avoid possible shortages of medicine or equipment.

China manufactures key ingredients for everything from antibiotics and painkillers to antiretrovirals for HIV. The closure of many borders and the suspension of flights and shipping has caused delays to shipments of goods worldwide.

“So far, the outbreak is not affecting the availability of medicines in Europe – but we will remain vigilant and if the situation changes we will step up our work,” European Commissioner for Health Stella Kyriakides told a news conference.

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She said the EU was “ready to start joint procurement” with manufacturers in China to make enough personal protective equipment to meet demand.

“In addition to the 12 tons of personal protective equipment already provided, we are connecting Chinese authorities to companies manufacturing protective equipment in the EU.”

According to Chinese health officials, the outbreak has infected at least 53,000 people worldwide and killed over 1,300 — 99% of them in China. Experts believe the true scope of the outbreak may be much higher.

AP/Francisco Seco
European Commissioner for Health Stella Kyriakides gave a coronavirus update in BrusselsAP/Francisco Seco

Asked whether the EU could close Europe's visa-free Schengen travel zone if the epidemic escalates, Croatian Health Minister Vili Beros said the bloc could indeed undertake further action. "If that means the closing of borders, we shall discuss it,'' he said.

Kyriakides, however, said the current outbreak does not call for such drastic measures.

EU 'should produce more medicine' again

The EU has so far repatriated around 500 of its citizens who were in China due to the virus.

Many countries have implemented travel restrictions on recent visitors to China but Dutch Health Minister Bruno Bruins encouraged EU members to avoid additional travel and trade restrictions.

Bruins also expressed concerns that Europe’s supply of medicines was “dependent on a single country."

“We need to assess the extent of possible shortages together, at the European level,” he told reporters.

German health minister Jens Spahn went further, saying: "We should start producing medicine more often within the European Union again.”