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E.U. raises €7.4 billion for anti-virus effort

World leaders joined forces for the launch of a European Union-led global pledging "marathon" that delivered promises of €7.4 billion for COVID-19 research.

BRUSSELS (AN) — World leaders joined forces for the launch of a European Union-led global pledging "marathon" on Monday that delivered promises of  €7.4 billion for research into COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostics and medical treatments.

But delivering those vaccines poses a problem, a review of attitudes to vaccines shows. Only 59% of Western Europeans and just 50% 0f Eastern Europeans trust vaccines, according to a 2018 survey by Wellcome Trust, a U.K.-based charity that promotes global understanding of science.

It found slightly more than a quarter of Northern Europeans and North Americans view vaccines as unsafe, despite widespread trust in medical professionals and scientists.

As many as a third of people in France disagree that vaccines are safe, the highest percentage for any country worldwide. That stems from the mass vaccination campaign that French public health authorities waged against the 2009 swine flu pandemic that lasted until mid-2010.

France heavily distributed vaccines, face masks and antiviral drugs, and the pandemic ended with several hundred deaths that caused the nation to believe its politicians had overreacted to the crisis and were unduly influenced by the World Health Organization and the pharmaceutical industry.

"Skepticism about vaccines in France is not new, but researchers noticed an increase after the controversial influenza pandemic vaccination campaign in 2009, during which the WHO was alleged to have been influenced by pharmaceutical companies," the survey noted.

"In most regions, people who have high trust in doctors and nurses are very likely to consider that vaccines are safe," it concluded. "However, this is less true in Western and Eastern Europe."

Europeans have suffered 1.5 million confirmed cases of coronavirus, more than 40% of the global total, and 140,000 deaths. The E.U.'s pledging conference was co-convened by Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Spain and the United Kingdom.

Charles Michel, president of the European Council, which defines the E.U.'s overall political direction and priorities, noted that "only the development, production and deployment of vaccines and treatments will relegate the virus to the archives of history."

Six of the Group of Seven leaders — Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson — addressed the online pledging conference. The notable exception was U.S. President Donald Trump.

Johnson, newly recovered from a serious coronavirus infection, spoke by videoconference of the need for global cooperation far beyond usual norms. His call for solidarity departed from his go-it-alone approach to Brexit, which reduced the E.U. to a 27-nation political and economic union.

“We’ll need a truly global effort — because no one country, and no one pharmaceutical company, will be able to do this alone," he said. "The race to discover the vaccine to defeat this virus is not a competition between countries, but the most urgent shared endeavor of our lifetimes. It’s humanity against the virus.”

Leaders from Australia, Israel, Jordan, Monaco, Norway, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland and Turkey also addressed the pledging conference in Brussels.

"This is exactly the kind of leadership the world needs today," U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres told the start of the pledging conference. “The virus is still likely to strike many countries that are least able to cope. In an interconnected world, none of us is safe until all of us are safe."

The European Commission, the E.U.'s executive branch, said it already registered €7.4 billion, equivalent to  US$8 billion, in pledges from donors worldwide in response to the Coronavirus Global Response pledging event. Those pledges included the E.U.'s kickstarter "reprioritization" of €1 billion in grants and €400 million in guarantees on loans previously budgeted and approved.

That fell just short of the E.U.'s initial €7.5 billion, or US$8.2 billion goal for the monthlong online pledging event. Its proceeds are earmarked for research labs that show promise in developing and producing a COVID-19 vaccine.

Among the projects to be financed over the next two years are research and testing of possible coronavirus vaccine and treatments by the Czech Republic's ELI Beamlines laser-based research center, and prototype solutions for prevention devices to avoid virus spread in public places and medical facilities that are being developed by universities in Poland's West Pomeranian region.

“Today the world showed extraordinary unity for the common good. Governments and global health organizations joined forces against coronavirus," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen of Germany said in a statement.

"With such commitment, we are on track for developing, producing and deploying a vaccine for all," she said. "However, this is only the beginning. We need to sustain the effort and to stand ready to contribute more."

Focus on vaccines

The United States, staggered by 1 million of the world's 3.5 million confirmed cases and over a quarter of the 248,000 deaths, notably skipped the start of the pledging conference, as did Russia. Some 1.1 million people, including 153,000 Americans, have recovered. China, where the virus was first detected late last year, was represented by its E.U. envoy, but did not pledge any money.

The E.U.-led global pledging conference contrasts with the United States' "America First" approach under the multilateral-averse Trump administration. The U.S. State Department emphasized in a media note on Monday that the U.S. government has spent more than US$1 billion developing COVID-19 vaccines in partnership with the U.S. pharmaceutical industry.

Administration officials, however, also said at a State Department special briefing that the United States "is in the process of providing US$2.4 billion in global health, humanitarian, and economic assistance towards the COVID-19 response."

The money for that international response comes from nearly US$2.4 billion in emergency supplemental funding provided by the U.S. Congress, said Jim Richardson, the State Department’s director of foreign assistance, at another press briefing on Monday.

"The United States government is the single largest donor to the global COVID-19 response, accounting for 39% of all global government and multilateral aid," he told reporters. "Altogether, Americans have provided nearly US$6.5 billion in government and non-government assistance and donations to the global effort, accounting for nearly 60% of global totals."

But that American largesse stems from Congress approving generous aid packages each year despite the Trump White House's efforts to cut back on aid.

The E.U.'s global pledging event came in response to the World Health Organization-led "call to action" last month for the world to join forces in finding ways to "accelerate the development, production and equitable global access to new COVID-19 essential health technologies."

Other international organizations participating in the global collaboration are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, Unitaid and Wellcome Trust.

Their efforts will be of little help, however, with people who mistrust the efficacy and safety of vaccines.

"People with more trust in scientists, doctors and nurses tend to be more likely to agree that vaccines are safe. Conversely, those who have sought information about science, medicine or health recently appear to be less likely to agree," the Wellcome Trust's survey found, adding that "understanding trends in people’s attitudes to vaccines will be critical to maintaining public health in the years ahead."

Some €100 million will be donated to CEPI and €158 million to the World Health Organization for fighting coronavirus, E.U. officials said. Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, also plans to hold a Global Vaccines Summit on June 4 to seek more funding to protect people with vaccines.

"As the world relies on Gavi's work for making vaccination available everywhere," said E.U. officials, "the success of Gavi's replenishment will be crucial to the success of the Coronavirus Global Response."

WHO’s Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus emphasized to the pledging conference that within two weeks of the first cases being reported to WHO, the world knew the genetic sequence of the new coronavirus and the first diagnostics followed within days.

"We already have early results from some trials of therapeutics. And several vaccines are now in human trials," he said in his opening remarks. "But the ultimate measure of success will not be how fast we can develop tools — it will be how equally we can distribute them. None of us can accept a world in which some people are protected while others remain exposed."