A staff member (R) offers a face mask to a man in front of the City Hall of Dresden, Saxony state, eastern Germany, on April 20, 2020. (Photo by Kevin Voigt/Xinhua)

EU health experts underestimated COVID-19 threat: El Pais

Health experts advising the European Union vastly underestimated the threat of the new coronavirus in February, just before the pandemic spread across the continent, Spain’s El Pais newspaper said Tuesday.

Europe has had a total of 167,668 COVID-19 deaths from 1,919,572 cases since it emerged in China in December, according to an AFP tally based on official statistics.

Citing minutes of a February 18 meeting of officials from the Sweden-based European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), El Pais said experts deemed the risk of COVID-19 “low” for the population and “low to moderate” for the EU’s health systems.

“Reading this document three months … later, it is evident that no health official present there foresaw what was about to happen,” El Pais said. 

“The Technical Advisory Committee believed that COVID-19 presented a ‘low’ risk to the European population, and only a few warnings were raised about the danger of the virus, the need to detect whether it was already in Europe, and the need for measures to stop it from spreading.”

There had been only about 45 coronavirus cases in Europe when the meeting took place and the majority of those were people who had travelled from Asia, or their contacts, El Pais said.

“An 80-year-old Chinese tourist from Wuhan, the centre of the coronavirus pandemic, had also died in Paris. The ECDC studied these cases and underscored that local contagion ‘appeared to be minor,’ with few infections that were easy to track,” the newspaper said.

Three days after the meeting, a cluster was detected in Lombard, northern Italy, where more than 32,000 COVID-19 sufferers have since died.

“They underestimated the virus,” said Daniel Lopez Acuna, a former World Health Organization official.