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No health emergency but virus hits politics in EU's heart

BRUSSELS (AP) — A European Union summit via computer. The EU parliament a virtual ghost village in a shortened session. The assembly’s president working from home, self-isolating because of coronavirus.

The disease that shutdown Italy hasn't hit Brussels in a major way, but it has struck at the heart of politics in Europe. In a rare event, the EU’s presidents and prime ministers gathered Tuesday around screens and monitors in their offices for a video conference summit Tuesday to coordinate efforts to respond to the outbreak that has seen a national lockdown imposed in member state Italy.

During their virtual meeting, which was also attended by European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the leaders were to discuss how to coordinate their response to the virus and its economic consequences. They have also pledged to accelerate research into the disease.

“The last days have demonstrated that the virus is spreading in all member states. This is a matter for all of us," European Council President Charles Michel told the leaders as he chaired the multi-screen summit from a small room, in stark contrast to the sweeping oval table Europe's leaders usually sit at.

Michel expressed his “sympathy” to Italy and all those Europeans hit by the virus. He urged the leaders to agree to react to the spread of the virus based on scientific and medical advice as well as in a proportionate way. He also asked them to think about ways to guarantee the provision of medical equipment and products.

The European Commission says all 27 member states now have patients confirmed with the fast-spreading illness. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

The EU's commissioner for health and food safety, Stella Kyriakides, urged EU countries to “focus on efforts to aggressively contain the virus, particularly where there are few cases. Slowing down the virus must be our greatest priority.”

According to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control's latest figures, there have been 14,890 confirmed cases of the virus across Europe, including 532 deaths. The EU medicines agency said it’s received no reports of medicine shortages so far, but can't rule out such problems in the future.

The EU has cut down on events, calling meetings between ambassadors and experts only when necessary. The European Parliament was meant to meet until Thursday, but will end its session later Tuesday. A meeting of foreign ministers focused on trade meant to take place on Thursday has also been canceled.

For the EU, the impact of the virus means it's business as unusual. The lead diplomat for Croatia’s EU presidency is in self-isolation, leading to the cancellation of some meetings, and the parliament’s Italian president is working remotely.

“I have decided after having been in Italy over the last weekend, as a precaution, to follow the indicated measures and to exercise my function as President from my home in Brussels in compliance with the 14 days indicated by the health protocol,” David Sassoli said in a statement.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, bickered over who is responsible in the almost empty house. “Europe has been totally absent. Brussels did nothing to help the situation in Italy and in many other countries,” Italian parliamentarian Mara Bizzotto said. Rather than dealing with arrivals from China and other places, she said, Europe simply treated many northern Italians “as if they had the plague.”

Ljudmila Novak, a lawmaker from neighboring Slovenia, said: “I have heard colleagues from Italy blaming the EU for everything it’s failed to do. But has Italy perhaps not failed in its duties to combat the virus.”

The cases in Slovenia, Novak said, “came from Italy and Italian airports.” Across town, the NATO military alliance said that a staffer had self-isolated after testing positive following the onset of fever-like symptoms. Colleagues in the same area were working from home.

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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