EU authorities are closely monitoring the coronavirus epidemic. The threat level for Europe is low. Only 33 cases have been reported in the bloc. Bernd Riegert reports from Brussels on efforts to contain the virus.
Janez Lenarcic, the EU's crisis management commissioner, recently stared at a wall of computer screens in Brussels. This is where his crisis task forces usually monitors forest fires, floods and other natural disasters. Now, he is looking at maps with confirmed coronavirus infections. Through Tuesday, just 33 cases had been recorded in six EU member states, according to the World Health Organization. Fourteen of those were in Germany. France has reported 11 cases — the second-highest number in the bloc. This is why the Stockholm-based European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) deems the coronavirus threat to be "very low."
The bloc's 27 health minsters plan to gather for a crisis meeting on Thursday. Lenarcic did not specify which measures would be discussed.
According to the European Commission, the crisis center is now operating at full capacity. The idea is for it to coordinate all measures by EU countries and their partners and neighbors — including Iceland, Norway and the prospective EU member states North Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro and Turkey — to contain the coronavirus outbreak. Should a member state be unable to implement the necessary measures, the center can organize assistance from other states. The European Commission has pledged to invest €10 million ($10.9 million) to efforts to develop a vaccine.
Lenarcic, however, warned that the epidemic had not peaked. About 500 citizens of EU countries have been flown out of China and remain under quarantine at their homes. Repatriations are coordinated by the crisis center as needed. Lenarcic could not say whether flights between EU countries and China and Southeast Asia would be restricted, adding that the decision would be up to individual member states for now. So far, Germany's Lufthansa, British Airways, Air France, KLM, Swiss International Air Lines, Austrian Airlines, Finnair, SAS and Iberia have reduced or suspended flights to China through March. Italy's government has stopped flights to from and to China.
"So far, the coronavirus has spread exponentially — though we are slowly seeing the infection rate stabilizing," said Christian Iacob, a civil servant monitoring transmissions of the coronavirus. "This figure over here on the top indicates how many people recovered after contracting the virus," he said, adding that the rate of recovery was rising.
Iacob is in close touch with authorities in China as he writes reports on the situation in different EU countries. "So far, cooperation with China has been smooth," he said. "They tell us what they need, and we check which member state can provide that."
China has requested additional humanitarian goods and medical supplies from the European Union. Face masks, protective gloves and clothing will soon be delivered to China, according to the European Commission. So far, Germany and France have already delivered protective gear to China.
"Ever since the virus outbreak became known to the international community," Lenarcic said, "cooperation between the European Commission and China has been good."
Lenarcic said another concern was that the coronavirus epidemic could disrupt China's manufacturing sector and therefore have a negative impact global supply chains and the world economy. He said, however, that the more immediate risk posed by the virus is to public health.