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European leaders to discuss vaccination speed and immunity passports

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Medical staff is vaccinated against COVID-19 at a Rome hospital, Monday, Jan. 4, 2021.
Medical staff is vaccinated against COVID-19 at a Rome hospital, Monday, Jan. 4, 2021.   -   Copyright  Cecilia Fabiano/LaPresse
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Amid rising infections and new strains of COVID-19, EU leaders will meet on Thursday (January 21) to discuss how best to tackle the pandemic. It comes amid continued criticism that the vaccination drive has been too sluggish.

The meeting takes place a few days after the European Commission urged member countries to vaccinate 70% of adults by the summer.

Ahead of the high-level talks, Euronews spoke to Malta's health minister, Christopher Fearne, about the EU's vaccination strategy.

Vaccination timeline

Although the EU had hoped for a more coordinated approach to the vaccine rollout, different countries have begun at different times, and with different speeds.

For Malta, the objective is to vaccinate medical workers and those over 80 by March - a similar goal for most member states.

After that, it falls to the over 70s and those with chronic illnesses by the end of May. A similar approach is being taken by many member states.

"The realistic but ambitious target is that, by the end of September, we will have vaccinated 70% of our population," said Fearne.

European leaders meeting on Thursday will look for ways to boost production and at the same time increase vaccine deliveries and vaccinations themselves.

"Safety and procedures have the priority," a senior EU official said when asked about the various letters from member states requesting that the approval of new vaccines by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) be sped up.

EMA is set to approve the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine by the end of this month. This would be one month after the UK approved it, which has led to criticism over the EU's approval procedures.

On whether the EU strategy was too slow, Fearne disagrees. It was particularly important for a small country like Malta to get joint procurement as a bloc.

"There are different advantages. The first advantage, of course, is that when we negotiate as a bloc with the pharmaceutical industry we have much stronger negotiating power than if we negotiate as separate authorities or separate member states. But even more than that, it's price transparency. By procuring together, then we managed to keep the prices down," said Fearne.

Vaccination certificates

Malta is a top holiday destination in Europe and its economy relies heavily on tourism.

Greece has already touted the idea of vaccination certificates to help revive the flagging tourism industry in Europe.

"It's just another tool that would enable countries to open up further," said Fearne.

He explains that there are already red and green zones that have different restrictions for travel.

"Vaccination certificates for the red zone will enable these citizens to travel even though their community has a high level of the virus," he said.

But, he adds, a similar level of vaccinations is needed across Europe, hitting the targets for vaccinating different parts of the population by May.

"That's why this will enable us to open up our economies as a bloc and will enable tourism and trade to recover at a faster rate."

According to EU sources, the issue of vaccination certificates will be discussed on Thursday, however, it is too early to commit to a formula. Many questions need to be answered from the duration of immunity, to what rules apply to those who received vaccines not approved by the EMA.

"Some key points on paper should be defined and these will be discussed by the leaders, but for an agreement on the standards that it will contain, other summits will be needed," a senior EU official said.