In the wake of the coronavirus crisis, the European Commission’s Digital Strategy gains renewed importance as digital tools are used to:
- monitor the spread of the coronavirus
- research and develop diagnostics, treatments and vaccines
- ensure that Europeans can stay connected and safe online
While restrictions are in place, and social and economic activities become more digital, citizens and businesses rely on the internet and connectivity. Thanks to broadband networks and digital infrastructure, we can keep on learning, socialising and working.
Trust services for businesses, eGovernment and eHealth ensure continuity and the availability of public services, while trusted security systems protect our identities online and make sure that our activities remain private.
National contact tracing and warning apps
National contact tracing and warning apps can be voluntarily installed and used to warn users, even across borders, if they have been in the proximity of a person who is reported to have been tested positive for coronavirus. In the case of an alert, the app may provide relevant information from health authorities, such as advice to get tested or to self-isolate, and who to contact.
Contact tracing apps, if fully compliant with EU rules and well-coordinated, can play a key role in all phases of crisis management. They can complement existing manual contact tracing and help interrupt the transmission chain of the virus. Thereby, they can contribute to saving lives.
The analytical power of artificial intelligence (AI) and high-performance computing are major assets when it comes to detecting patterns in the spread of the coronavirus. With their help, public health sectors can monitor the spread of the coronavirus and quickly devise effective response strategies.
In the healthcare industry, artificial intelligence also plays a part in powering the robots and other tools used when coming into contact with patients, as human interaction should be kept to a minimum.
European supercomputers fighting the coronavirus
Three powerful European supercomputing centres are engaged in studying and developing vaccines, treatments and diagnoses for the coronavirus.
By comparing digital models of the coronavirus’ proteins and matching them against a database of thousands of existing drugs, the aim is to discover which combinations of active molecules react to the virus. The supercomputers complement the classic trial and error clinical approach. A pharmaceutical company and several large biological and biochemical institutes participate by providing access to their databases of drugs. The Exscalate4CoV project, supported by €3 million in EU funding, is conducting research using an EU-backed supercomputing platform to check the potential impact of known molecules against the structure of the coronavirus.
In June, Exscalate4CoV announced that an already-registered generic drug used to treat osteoporosis, Raloxifene, could be an effective treatment for coronavirus patients with mildly symptomatic infection. The consortium is in discussion with the European Medicines Agency to advance to clinical trials, which, if successful, could make the drug available sooner.
On October 27, the Italian pharmaceutical regulatory agency, AIFA, has greenlighted a clinical trial for the use of Raloxifene in patients with mild symptoms caused by the coronavirus. The clinical study should validate the safety and efficiency of Raloxifene in blocking the replication of the virus in cells, and thus hold up the progression of the disease. In the initial phase, up to 450 participants in three separate treatment groups will be administered via a 7-day treatment of Raloxifene capsules in a randomised sample. Exscalate4CoV, using a unique combination of high performance computing power and AI with biological processing, screened 400,000 molecules and specifically tested 7,000 molecules in vitro.
Coronavirus response – data from space
With its 30+satellites, the EU Space Programme, notably through its Earth Observation component, Copernicus, and its satellite navigation system, Galileo, offers free and open data/information that helps monitor and potentially mitigate against the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.
Since the beginning of the crisis, EU satellites have been monitoring traffic congestions at border crossings between Member States and mapping medical facilities, hospitals and other critical infrastructure. Data that is collected from satellites, in combination with artificial intelligence, provides public authorities at EU and national levels with models to better understand and tackle the emergency more efficiently.
The EU Space Programme offers solutions for multiple issues, such as:
- safeguarding public health with Galileo - the most accurate positioning system in the world
- monitoring how we deliver on the Green Deal with Copernicus - the best Earth Observation system of its class
- ensuring a secure communication channel for Member States
On 5 June 2020, the European Commission launched the ‘Rapid Action Coronavirus Earth observation’ in collaboration with the European Space Agency. The Rapid Action tool relies on satellite data to measure the impact of the coronavirus lockdown and monitor post-lockdown recovery at local, regional and global levels. The data is then analysed using new digital tools, such as artificial intelligence.
Networks and connectivity
As EU Member States have introduced social distancing measures to fight the coronavirus pandemic, the demand for Internet capacity has increased drastically - be it for teleworking, e-learning or entertainment purposes – thereby straining networks.
To prevent network congestion and to allow everyone the enjoyment of digital entertainment, the European Commission called upon telecom operators and users to take action and met with the CEOs of streaming platforms. Streaming platforms are encouraged to offer standard rather than high definition content, telecom operators should take mitigating measures to allow for continued traffic, and users should apply settings that reduce data consumption, including the use of Wi-Fi.
The EU operators indicate that there is an increased demand of connectivity. Although no network congestions has occurred thus far, the Commission and the Body of European Regulators of Electronic Communications (BEREC) have set up a special reporting mechanism and monitor the internet traffic situation in each Member State to be able to respond to capacity issues.
Online platforms fighting disinformation
Disinformation is spreading rapidly online, particularly on social media. At times, this goes beyond simple mistruths. Fake or alleged ‘remedies’ can lead to serious harm or health risks.
The European Commission has been in dialogue with the signatories of the EU’s Code of Practice on Disinformation (Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft), who agreed to actively promote authoritative sources, demote false or misleading content, and launch new tools that lead users directly to authoritative sources or that provide accurate multilingual information on the crisis.
On 10 June 2020, the Commission highlighted important actions to tackle COVID-19 disinformation and set up a program to monitor the actions that platforms are taking to limit the spread of COVID-19 disinformation.
Results from the first baseline reports:
- Google Search has given prominence to articles published by EU fact-checking organisations, which generated over 155 million impressions over the first half of 2020.
- Facebook and Instagram COVID-19 “Information Center” directed over 2 billion people globally to resources from the WHO and other health authorities.
- Over 160 million people have visited the Twitter’s COVID-19 curated pages, over 2 billion times. Such pages bring together the latest Tweets from a number of authoritative and trustworthy government, media and civil society sources in local languages.
- YouTube has displayed information panels linking to global and locally-relevant health officials on its homepage, and in panels that appear on videos and searches about COVID-19. Overall, these panels have served over 300 billion impressions around the world
- The TikTok informational page on COVID-19 has been visited over 52 million times across their five major European markets (UK, Germany, France, Italy and Spain).
The platforms have been using all the tools at their disposal to remove disinformation relating to the coronavirus. They have taken down illegal content or content that could cause physical harm (fake and harmful virus remedies) or affect public order (disinformation around the 5G deployment allegedly being the cause of the coronavirus).
The European Commission regularly debunks misleading stories.
Staying safe online
The coronavirus pandemic has led a sudden and large shift towards online services. People are spending more time online and depending more on digital communication. Such heightened online activity can attract malign actors and increase the potential of cyber-attacks.
This also concerns children, who now spend more time online, possibly unsupervised, than before. While this allows them to continue their education and stay in touch with their peers, there are signs of increased risk. Therefore, EUROPOL has collaborated with international partners to develop Online Safety Advice for Parents and Carers to help keep children safe online during the coronavirus pandemic.
Beware of online scams
Beware of online scams related to products that allegedly can cure or prevent coronavirus infections. Currently, no vaccination or remedies for the coronavirus are available and you should think twice before buying medicine or other remedies, including test kits, online. Once available, you will be able to receive both tests and vaccines from your licensed medical practitioner.
Avoid financing crime by purchasing worthless substances that might harm your health. To tackle criminal activities effectively, it is important that victims report crimes to national police authorities, and you should use the reporting tools provided by the platform operator to signal inappropriate content.
The European Commission is monitoring for any signs of threats to a safe online environment throughout this vulnerable time by working closely with
- the European Union Agency for Cybersecurity
- EUROPOL (the European Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation)
- the Computer Emergency Response Team for the EU Institutions,
- national authorities
- other EU institutions
- other bodies and agencies
EUROPOL supported the successful investigation into a mask-selling scam aimed at EU Member States’ governments and helped foil another attempt to swindle authorities out of millions of euros for medical supplies.
The European Commission has been working with Europol and the providers of website domain names to prevent the granting of domain names to criminals and foster swift cooperation between providers and authorities to identify and disable scam websites. The providers have already issued guidance.
The Commission works with online platforms participating in the structured dialogue on tackling online consumer scams related to the coronavirus pandemic, together with consumer protection authorities.
The Commission and the Consumer Protection Cooperation Network are in regularly contact with the 11 major online platforms: Allegro, Amazon, Alibaba/AliExpress, CDiscount, Ebay, Facebook, Google, Microsoft/Bing, Rakuten, Verizon Media/Yahoo and Wish to discuss new trends and business practices linked to the pandemic. As a result, the online platforms have reported the removal of hundreds of millions of illegal offers and advertisements and confirmed a steady decline in new coronavirus-related listings.
Screening of online platforms and advertisements
To protect consumers online, the European Commission and the Consumer Protection Cooperation Network are coordinating a screening of online platforms, e-shops and advertisements to ensure that consumers in the EU are not being subjected to content in breach of EU consumer rules. This consists of two parts: a high-level screening of online platforms, and an in-depth analysis of specific advertisements and websites linked to products in high demand because of the coronavirus.
The Commission exchanges information with the major online platforms (Allegro, Amazon, AliExpress, Microsoft/Bing, CDiscount, Ebay, Facebook, Google, Rakuten, Wish and Yahoo/Verizon media). All these platforms have replied with a strong commitment to the protection of consumers, and have confirmed their continued efforts to proactively take down misleading ads, including for ‘miracle' food supplements illegally advertised with claims related to coronavirus.
The Consumer Protection Authorities of 27 countries submitted 126 replies concerning both the companies with which the Commission has been in regular contact and other national actors. Priority was given to screening offers linked to
- protective masks and caps
- sanitising gels
- testing kits
- food, food supplements and non-food products with alleged healing effects related to the coronavirus
This joint action has already showed good results. In March,
- Aliexpress removed over 250,000 suspicious listings
- eBay blocked or removed more than 15 million listings violating their coronavirus policies
In May, millions of misleading advertisements or product listings were blocked or removed on
- Google, over 80 million coronavirus-related ads
- eBay, over 17 million listings from its global marketplace
- Amazon, a 77% decrease in the weekly number of new product listings with coronavirus-related claims compared to March 2020
The Commission will continue cooperation and information exchanges with advertising self-regulatory bodies on the development of automatic tools to find misleading advertisements.
Upskilling for life after the pandemic
Social distancing has transformed the way we connect, research and innovate at work. To help employers, recruiters and educators ensure that Europeans are equipped with digital skills in the post-coronavirus context, on 13 July the Commission launched new digital competence guidelines that include practical steps, key actions, tips and online resources for digital users. These will help citizens make best use of their digital competences from the perspective of the ‘employability path’- from education to sustainable employment, and entrepreneurship.
The outbreak of the coronavirus in Europe has caused significant disruption to the provision of education. New ways of teaching and learning require solutions that are innovative, creative and inclusive.
Erasmus+ Programme mobilised for a strong response to the pandemic
- digital education and training
- digital youth work
- creative skills and social inclusion
The funding will also provide new opportunities for schools, youth organisations and adult learning institutions to
- support skills development
- boost creativity
- enhance social inclusion through the arts
Calls for project proposals in these areas will be published in early autumn.
Interested organisations may get in touch with the Erasmus+ national agencies.
To help ensure continuity in education and training activities, a wide range of online learning materials is available:
- Online platforms
- EU-funded projects
- Stay at Home Digital Toolkit
- SELFIE - a free self-reflection tool to help schools make the most of digital tech. The tool can be used to produce a snapshot of a school‘s strengths and weaknesses by gathering anonymous views from students, teachers and school leaders on using digital technologies. SELFIE is available in 31 languages.
- Coding from home