Luxembourg – European Union member states will share their stocks of anti-viral medicines if one of their number is hard hit by the new swine flu virus, EU health ministers decided on Thursday.
But the ministers rejected a French proposal to ban all flights from the EU to Mexico, the source of the outbreak, saying that this would not be effective.
‘If there is a real escalation of the crisis, the member states who have more stockpiling of anti-virals expressed their willingness and readiness to help others,’ EU Health Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou told journalists after a meeting in Luxembourg.
It is the first time that EU member states have agreed to the principle of sharing their drug supplies, after refusing to do so during public-health alerts over bird flu and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
But the EU’s 27 members rejected an Italian call for a ‘medicine bank’ which would allow them to dip into one another’s supplies on a regular basis, saving their solidarity for emergencies.
‘If the need arises for a particular member state to meet a particular escalation in their respective country, then obviously they will notify the remaining member states and will ask for their support,’ Vassiliou said.
Ministers also rejected a French call to ban flights from the EU to Mexico, a move Paris had proposed in a bid to stem the spread of the virus.
Such a ban would be ‘an empty signal: first, you can’t control that Mexicans can travel to Venezuela and travel from there, and second, if the flu is already over here, it’s here,’ Danish Health Minister Jakob Axel Nielsen told the German Press Agency dpa.
Leaving the meeting, French Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot said that her country would no longer consider bringing in such a ban unilaterally, as it would not work without EU support.
At the same time, ministers agreed that the bloc and its pharmaceutical producers should work as fast as possible to produce a new vaccine for the virus.
EU member states will ‘cooperate on science and research with one another and with industry, which should make it possible to develop a vaccine without undue delay,’ Czech Health Minister Daniela Filipova, who chaired the meeting, said.
Ministers also offered to send aid to Mexico, and to other countries hard hit by the virus, in the EU’s first coordinated show of solidarity to the wider world.
The bloc ‘declares its readiness to examine … the possible ways and means to provide assistance in the fight against this outbreak,’ ministers said in a joint statement.
And the ministers also extended a helping hand to Europe’s own pig-farming industry, amid fears that public panic over the term ‘swine flu’ could prompt a mass rejection of pork products.
‘There is currently no scientific evidence of any link between this disease and the consumption of pork meat or products,’ the joint statement stressed.
EU officials now term the virus ‘novel flu,’ stressing that it is ‘related to human-to-human transmission,’ not caught from pigs.
In a further bid to forestall public panic, officials were at pains to stress that the disease has not killed anyone in Europe, and that those who have been diagnosed with it so far have only had mild attacks which have yielded to treatment.
Nevertheless, during the meeting, Italy urged those of its citizens who have recently returned from Mexico to stay at home for a week in case they develop symptoms.