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The head of the European Union Commission says it's time to consider making vaccines mandatory

Business Insider logo Business Insider 2/12/2021 mloh@businessinsider.com (Matthew Loh)
President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen speaks to media at the end of the weekly EU Commission meeting, in the Berlaymont, the EU Commission headquarter on December 1, 2021 in Brussels, Belgium. Thierry Monasse/Getty Images © Thierry Monasse/Getty Images President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen speaks to media at the end of the weekly EU Commission meeting, in the Berlaymont, the EU Commission headquarter on December 1, 2021 in Brussels, Belgium. Thierry Monasse/Getty Images
  • EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said it's now "appropriate" to discuss vaccine mandates.
  • One-third of EU's population is unvaccinated, creating "an enormous health cost," said von der Leyen.
  • Each individual member state of the EU decides on its own vaccine mandates and measures.

European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU should start discussing mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations, as the world steels itself for the threat of the newly-discovered Omicron coronavirus variant.

"Two or three years ago, I would have never thought to witness what we see right now: That we have this horrible pandemic, we have the life-saving vaccines, but they are not being used adequately everywhere. And thus, this is an enormous health cost," von der Leyen said at a news conference in Brussels on Wednesday.

She noted that one-third of the EU population, or roughly 150 million people, had not been vaccinated yet.

Von der Leyen said it is "understandable and appropriate" to consider vaccine mandates among the EU's 27 member nations.

"How can we encourage and potentially think about mandatory vaccination within the European Union?" she told reporters. "This needs discussion. This needs a common approach, but it is a discussion that I think has to be led."

Von der Leyen, a licensed physician, also said the EU faces a "race against time" with the Omicron variant, adding that vaccines are critical to the fight against the "highly contagious" strain.

"Till we know what is going on, and this will take two to three weeks, scientists tell us, we have to do everything possible to make the best out of the time we have until we have certainty about the characteristics of transmissibility and severity of Omicron," she said.

"Two to three weeks, this is in normal times a short period. In pandemic times, it's an eternity," Von der Leyen added.

The World Health Organization has said that COVID-19 vaccines will likely still protect against severe cases of the mutated Omicron variant.

As of Wednesday, 11 EU countries have reported a total of 59 cases of the Omicron variant, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. The US also reported its first case of the variant, carried by a single traveler who arrived in California on Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

It's up to each EU member state to decide whether to impose vaccine mandates. COVID-19 cases have surged in the last month in most European nations, with the UK, Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Poland among the worst-hit countries.

Austria was the first country in the EU — and the first Western democracy — to announce mandatory vaccinations for its entire adult population on November 19. On Tuesday, Greece said it would impose monthly fines of $113 to seniors older than 60 who refuse to get vaccinated by mid-January.

Meanwhile, Germany's incoming chancellor Olaf Scholz has said he would consider introducing a vaccine mandate for all Germans by February.

On the other hand, UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the country "won't ever look at" compulsory vaccinations for the public, though it has required the jabs for healthcare workers.

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