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ECDC's false risk assessment hinders coronavirus response

For a month and a half, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) did not treat the potential risks of coronavirus with sufficient seriousness, V4NA discovered, based on the EU institution's risk assessments. Even on the day of the first death in Europe, the ECDC said the risk of viral infection for the population of the European Union and the United Kingdom was "moderate".

Since early January 2020, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) has been conducting regular risk assessments on coronavirus, which have been published on the organisation's website. The ECDC was established after the 2003 SARS outbreak and is funded by the European Union. ECDC's assessments are sent to EU institutions and every member state. The reports describe the circumstances and characteristics of the pandemic and include a risk assessment of the spread of the virus.

The ECDC's first publication on 9 January included the following statements on the possible spread of the epidemic in Europe: "The upcoming Chinese New Year celebrations at the end of January will cause an increased volume of travel to/from China and within China, thus increasing the likelihood of possible cases arriving (to Europe). However, given that there is no indication of human-to-human transmission, the risk to travellers is considered to be low." As no new diseases have been detected outside the city of Wuhan in China, "the likelihood of introduction to the EU is considered to be low. Consequently, the risk of further spread within the EU should a case be identified is considered low to very low," the ECDC's first report says.

In its report published on 17 January, the ECDC assessed the likelihood of EU/EEA (European Economic Area) travellers becoming infected, even after visiting Wuhan, to be low, as "there is no indication of virus circulation in the community." Therefore, according to the ECDC, the likelihood of the spread of coronavirus within the EU/EEA is considered to be "very low". This was, however, modified to moderate in the next report on 22 January, while the ECDC considered the likelihood of a potential 2019-nCoV outbreak to be high. A week later, the ECDC continued to understate the risk of the spread of the virus, while the first coronavirus cases were being registered in different European countries. This occured on 24 January in France, on 27 January in Germany, on 29 January in Finland and on 31 January in Italy and Great Britain. In its fourth report on coronavirus, published 31 January, the EU organisation stated that "the likelihood of infection for EU/EEA citizens in other Chinese provinces [other than Hubei]  is moderate" while "the likelihood of sustained human-to-human transmission within the EU/EEA is currently very low to low," provided the cases are detected in a timely manner.

Country

Date of first case

France

24 January, 2020

Germany

27 January, 2020

Finland

29 January, 2020

Great Britain and Northen Ireland

31 January, 2020

Italy

31 January, 2020

In Europe, the first fatality was a Chinese tourist who died on 14 February in a hospital in Paris. That day, there were 11 confirmed cases in France, while more than 65,000 people were infected in China. Still, the ECDC's report on 14 February stated that "the risk associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection for the EU/EEA and UK population is currently low." Since then, the number of confirmed cases in the United Kingdom has approached 15,000 in the past six weeks and the rate of newly registered cases doubles in every three days.

EU: No common will to manage the crisis

Tensions that surfaced during the latest video conference of EU heads of state and government on Thursday can further deepen the crisis. German Chancellor Angela Merkel openly admitted that there is a serious dispute between member states over the financial management of the crisis. Italian PM Giuseppe Conte has warned of the potential grave consequences, should the EU be unable to come up with a financial plan acceptable for all member states to mitigate the pandemic's economic fallout. Italy and Spain have called for the EU to issue "corona bonds" to help the economies of the most affected countries, as most member states face serious recession. Italy is the hardest-hit, where almost all production facilities have come to a halt in the past weeks. Observers say the fact that leaders agreed to revisit the issue in two weeks' time can fundamentally undermine people's trust in the EU institutions and leaders, because - as the current crisis has proved - two weeks "can prove infinitely long' and the whole world can turn upside down, according to the BBC.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has also been widely criticised for the hesitance of the EU bodies. In an interview published in the German Badische Zeitung on Saturday, Ms von der Leyen defended the measures taken in relation to the pandemic. She labelled "corona bond", demanded by Giuseppe Conte, a bombastic name without real content. The Commission president said that issuing such bonds, opposed primarily by Germany and the Netherlands, are not a real option, adding that she believe German's reservations were "justified". Ms von der Leyen stressed that the EU institutions were already working on plans to restart the economy after the pandemic and the Italians should wait for the EU leaders' decision due in two weeks' time.

Ms von der Leyen also resented that some member states went their separate ways when they shut down their borders "jeopardising the Schengen treaty." Although the Commission president blames the long queues of trucks at border crossing points on these decisions, she believes the EU has successfully resolved this issue by coordinating between the member states. In reality, however, this isn't quite what happened. Hungary, for example, held ministerial-level talks with its neighbours - including Romania and Serbia - regarding the tense situation at its borders, to ensure that freight trucks could reach their destination.

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