BRUSSELS—European Union health ministers agreed Thursday to boost preparations and organize a coordinated response to prevent the virus that emerged in China from further spreading across Europe.
At an emergency meeting in Brussels, officials from the bloc’s 27 nations said they need to plan more to avoid any possible shortages of medicine or protective equipment during the outbreak, which the World Health Organization has called a threat to global health.
Experts believe the true scope of the epidemic could be much higher due to the unreliability of the figures admitted by Chinese authorities.
More people have now died from the new coronavirus than was reported during the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak. No deaths have been recorded in Europe so far, and the continent has only 46 confirmed virus cases.
“We will remain vigilant, and if the situation changes, we will step up our work,” said European health commissioner Stella Kyriakides.
Ministers said early detection and uniform prevention measures—notably at entry points like airports—were vital. Agnes Buzyn, the French minister for health, said the EU should also remain vigilant in case the outbreak hurts the production of pharmaceuticals in China, therefore leading to possible medical shortages. She urged the EU to start up a joint procurement plan for purchasing medical equipment.
“Fragmentation of effort will make us all collectively more vulnerable. Unity on our part would also support China’s efforts to contain the virus, and mitigate any further transmission within and into the EU,” Kyriakides said.
Asked whether the EU could close Europe’s visa-free Schengen travel area 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.
COVID-19 is caused by a member of the coronavirus family that’s a close cousin to the severe acute respiratory syndrome and Middle East respiratory syndrome viruses.
The virus outbreak has led the EU to repatriate around 500 of its citizens from China so far.
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.
Dr. Mike Ryan, the executive director of WHO’s emergencies program, joined the debate via video link, and insisted on the importance of supporting third countries with less robust health systems to stop the virus.
“A week ago, only two labs in Africa could make this diagnosis,” he said. “As I speak, over 30 labs can make this diagnosis. And by the end of the week, we hope all countries in Africa will have the capacity to at least make this diagnosis.”