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Europe's week: Recession, resource pooling and racing for a vaccine

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Europe's week: Recession, resource pooling and racing for a vaccine
Copyright  Francois Lenoir/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
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Politicians sometimes try and sugar coat bad news - but not this week.

"It is now quite clear that the EU has entered the deepest economic recession in its history," Paolo Gentiloni, the EU's economy chief said on Wednesday.

His unenviable job was to prepare the public for the worst economic shock since the Great Depression in the 1930s.

According to the European Commission, the EU economy will contract 7.4 per cent in 2020.

Yet, not every country will feel the heat the same way.

Greece and Italy will be worst hit with an almost 10 per cent slump, while other countries like Portugal and Germany manage to keep contractions below seven per cent.

How quickly each member state's economy will recover largely depends on the evolution of the pandemic.

Governments will have to walk a fine line between re-launching economic activity and protecting the health of their citizens.

But here's the truth: this situation won't change until a treatment and a vaccine exist that would defeat COVID-19 indefinitely.

Stronger together?

In a situation like this, people want stronger cooperation among nations, according to a survey conducted by IPSOS and the Dialogue of Civilizations in France, Germany, Poland and Russia.

One of the fields where majorities in those countries want to work together closely is science – as in developing medical weapons against COVID-19.

This week, the European Commission convened a global pledging marathon to pool the massive resources that are needed. They aimed to raise an initial sum of €7.5 billion to ramp up work on vaccines, diagnostics and treatments.

Notably absent were the United States and Russia. Both believe that they can deal with the virus on their own, without international cooperation.

Racing for a vaccine

At the donor conference, Boris Johnson said “the more we pull together and share our expertise, the faster our scientists will succeed” in developing and mass-producing a vaccine.

So with all the international cooperation, how far are we from a vaccine that all people could benefit from?

In short, we don't know.

"We have never developed a coronavirus vaccine before that we have been able to use in humans and so this is a daunting challenge," explains Dr Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Research Institute.

"But there really is unprecedented scientific effort, and I think there is a good chance that we'll have a vaccine in 2021, next year."

Governments and scientists are facing a race against the clock as the economic fallout of lockdown becomes clear.

But scientists warn against rushing a vaccine to market.

"We are going so fast and cutting a lot of steps that we usually do to ensure safety. And of course, the tragedy would be that if we develop a vaccine that ends up being harmful. For governments the big challenge is to invest the resources so we can scale up production and distribution of the vaccine," admits Dr Jha.

There is still a lot we don't know about the virus. Many explanations have been put forward to explain why some countries are hit very hard and others, sometimes their neighbours, a lot less.

Dr Jha admits that we are still in the early stages of understanding the virus.

"If we think of this as an 18-month pandemic, we are in month four or five. And so I have no reason to believe that six or twelve months from now the same countries that have been spared will still have been spared."

The uneven spread can be driven by many factors, including "super-spreading events".

"It is possible, for instance, that Iran had a couple of super-spreading events and its neighbour Iraq didn't. It is also likely that Iran was affected with many more cases coming from China than Iraq was. So there are two countries right next to each other where you see very different-size outbreaks," explained Dr Jha.