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EU prepares research funding boost as it confronts virus variants

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Brussels is set to announce plans to plough millions of euros into research on new coronavirus variants as it seeks to step up its response to the rapidly evolving pandemic. 

Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, is preparing to announce €150m in funding for research into novel mutant strains of the pathogen and related work, using money from the EU’s Horizon scientific research programme. 

In addition, at least €75m of EU funding will be ploughed into developing specialised tests for emerging variants of the disease, according to people familiar with the plan. 

The spending is part of an effort by von der Leyen to regain the initiative on the coronavirus battle after weeks of critical headlines over the bloc’s sluggish inoculation rollout. One big question that has been raised is whether the commission and member states put in sufficient money up front to boost companies’ efforts to develop vaccines and build manufacturing capacity.

Earlier this month, von der Leyen admitted to the European Parliament that the commission had made mistakes in the jab procurement strategy it runs along with member states. Brussels had been too late to approve some Covid-19 shots, too optimistic when it came to vaccine manufacturing capacity, and too confident that doses would be delivered on time, she said.

The commission chief is expected to unveil the new strategy on the battle against variants on Wednesday, alongside Stella Kyriakides, health commissioner, and Thierry Breton, internal market commissioner. 

Their plan aims to confront mutant virus strains that could prove resistant to existing vaccines being deployed in Europe. South Africa has already paused the rollout of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine after a university study appeared to show that it offered little protection against mild and moderate disease caused by a novel strain first identified in the country. 

The commission goal will be to ensure speedy detection of mutant versions of the virus, enabling the rapid adaptation of vaccines to meet new threats. Proposed measures include a framework to enable patent holders to confidentially share intellectual property with partners to enable production of jabs effective against variants.

The commission also wants to aid research by setting up a network of clinical trials among EU countries and some outside the bloc, including Switzerland and Israel. It will encourage states to boost genome sequencing — setting a target of sequencing 5 per cent of positive tests. EU diplomats have pointed to the importance of the relatively high level of sequencing done in the UK to the identification of emerging viral mutations.

The commission plan will also seek to fast-track regulatory approval of updated vaccines — potentially following along the model already in use for influenza jabs — and to speed up authorisation of new capacity for manufacturing adapted vaccines. It could also discuss a new category of emergency approvals for vaccines.

The commission also wants to update its existing vaccine advance purchase agreements or conclude new ones, using them to support the development of new and adapted jabs with the aid of EU funding. 

The plan will involve expanding capacity to produce both existing and adapted vaccines. This would include setting up a network of factories that can always be ready to produce jabs.

The commission initiative comes as it works on a new Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA) which aims to boost the bloc’s ability to respond quickly to future emerging health threats.

Von der Leyen said in an interview with Les Echos on Tuesday that she wanted to bring together health authorities and laboratories in a “HERA incubator” as the EU fights the worrying emergence of new variants. 

The commission is under political pressure to bolster its response to the evolving pandemic. Dacian Ciolos, president of the Renew Europe group in the European Parliament, said: “As new, more dangerous variants emerge, Europe must get back in the driving seat to avoid a perpetual pandemic.

“Individual countries are setting up programmes to identify new variants, but this must be co-ordinated better at a European level, with research resources to match.”

The commission declined to comment.

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