The EU declared an end on Wednesday to the coronavirus emergency as pressures on hospitals recede and countries drop restrictions.
“We are entering a new phase of the pandemic, as we move from emergency mode to a more sustainable management of COVID-19,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. “Yet, we must remain vigilant. Infection numbers are still high in the EU and many people are still dying from COVID-19 worldwide.”
In more than two years, the pandemic has claimed more than a million lives in the EU, putting health systems under huge strain, forcing governments to impose travel restrictions, and galvanizing a massive research and logistics effort to get populations vaccinated.
In an attempt to return to normal, new Commission guidance calls on member countries to fold their coronavirus testing programs into the broader surveillance of respiratory diseases. Testing shouldn’t aim to capture “all cases” but to obtain reliable estimates. Monitoring for new variants will be stepped up, with EU help, and health capacity should also be prepared in case there is a resurgence of the virus.
Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said that between 60 and 80 percent of the EU population has caught COVID-19 at some point.
Kyriakides also drew attention to the problem of so-called long COVID. Around 10 percent of people who catch COVID-19 end up suffering lingering symptoms. “This needs to be taken very seriously,” she told journalists.
Several EU member countries have already shifted to viewing COVID-19 as “endemic,” with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez saying back in January that it should be treated like the flu. Sweden scrapped its mass testing program and lifted restrictions in February, while Italy ended its state of emergency on March 31.
Although data shows that coronavirus cases have been trending downward throughout the bloc since February, after a surge caused by the spread of the more mild Omicron variant, concerns persist that the possible emergence of a new, more virulent strain could fuel another wave of infection. “The risk that the situation can change quickly with a new variant is real,” said Kyriakides.
While over two-thirds of the EU’s adult population has been vaccinated against COVID, low vaccination rates in some member countries mean their populations remain vulnerable. In Malta, around 70 percent of the population has received a booster shot, compared with just 10 percent in Bulgaria.
In her speech, Kyriakides previewed an upcoming “strategy for next generation vaccines” that aims to develop variant-proof and long-lasting shots.
In response to a question put by POLITICO, the Health Commissioner said that authorization for an adapted vaccine isn’t expected before the end of the summer, and that will depend on companies submitting the necessary data to regulators in the next few months.
Looking to the long term, the Commission policy document outlined a number of different ways the pandemic could evolve. The best-case scenario sees COVID-19 becoming “routinely manageable.” But more gloomy outlooks include unmanageable winters, during which hospitals become routinely overrun, or even the appearance of a new pandemic strain that would lead to the return of harsh restrictions.
This story has been updated.