Factbox: Virus variants, vaccine roll-out central for EU leaders

·2 min read
Vaccination with Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine of the medical staff, in Brussels

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union leaders meet online on Thursday to address the mounting challenge of new and more infectious coronavirus variants and the slow roll-out of vaccines. [L1N2JW0PN]

Here are the topics they are likely to discuss in the video conference starting at 6 p.m. (1700 GMT)

CLOSE BORDERS, CURB TRAVEL

Germany has said it may need to close its borders if other EU countries are less firm in restricting the spread of the coronavirus, particularly the new more transmissible variants.

Luxembourg, with nearly half of its workforce commuting in from other countries, does not want any border closures, while the European Commission says such closures would harm the bloc's treasured single market.

Belgium, with fewer cases per capita than its neighbours, wants to avoid a repeat of last winter when returning skiers brought coronavirus back with them. Prime Minister Alexander De Croo will ask fellow EU leaders temporarily to stop non-essential travel, such as tourism.

MORE TESTING, SEQUENCING

The Commission has urged the 27 EU countries to have vaccinated at least 70% of adults by the summer and to be genome sequencing at least 5%, and preferably 10%, of positive tests to identify new coronavirus variants.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has the capacity do sequencing for member states unable to do it themselves but only two have used this facility so far.

MORE VACCINES

Vaccinations have begun slowly, with the bloc lagging the likes of Britain and Israel in terms of per capita coverage.

The European Commission has coordinated vaccine orders, with all EU countries able to purchases doses according to their populations.

Many of those countries expressed alarm when they found out last week that Pfizer, the manufacturer of one of only two EU-approved vaccines, would temporarily reduce deliveries. Italy is considering legal action.

A third vaccine, produced by AstraZeneca, may receive regulatory approval at the end of January.

TRAVEL VACCINE CERTIFICATES

The EU executive wants member states to agree a common approach to vaccination certificates by the end of January. So a certificate from Estonia would be accepted in Portugal, for example.

Greece and Spain, whose economies are heavily reliant on tourism, have said such certificates could help restore cross-border travel, notably during the peak summer season.

France opposes the idea of making a certificate mandatory for travel, mindful that surveys show only 40-50% of its people are willing to be vaccinated. Vaccine critics say requiring certificates for travel is an indirect way of making the vaccine mandatory.

Other countries say this discussion is premature, partly because it is not yet clear if vaccinated people can still transmit the virus to others.

(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by John Chalmers and Catherine Evans)