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VACCINATION

Austria: EU to send extra vaccines to fight coronavirus mutations in Tyrol

The European Union will send 100,000 additional doses of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines to an Austrian district that has become a hotspot of the South African coronavirus variant.

A test station on the Austrian border
Photo: CHRISTOF STACHE / AFP

A spread of the South African variant could pose a major setback in Europe’s fight against the pandemic both because it is more infectious and because it may be more resistant to the vaccine made by AstraZeneca.

The EU ordered about 40 million doses of the AstraZeneca jab.

“We will receive 100,000 additional doses (from Pfizer-BioNTech) from the EU to fight the spread in the district of Schwaz,” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said at a press conference, adding that the region was “one of the biggest clusters of the South African variant in Europe.”

Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine, based on a different technology than AstraZeneca, is expected to be much more effective in protecting against the onset of Covid-19 when transmitted through the South African variant.

EXPLAINED: Why has Austria locked down the state of Tyrol?

A commission of international scientists, dispatched by the EU, will accompany the vaccination campaign in Schwaz to evaluate its efficacy in eliminating the highly contagious variant.

“Our goal is to stymie this large cluster and move towards zero infections, as much as this is possible,” Kurz said, adding that he’d like to “exterminate the variant.”

Every adult resident of the district with a total population of about 80,000 will be offered a vaccine starting around March 10, while the district will continue to be quarantined and only those with a negative Covid-19 test will be allowed to leave.

The number of active cases has dropped from more than 200 a few weeks ago down to below 100, largely due to a quarantine and mass testing imposed after several media reports alleged that a group of middle-aged men who travelled to South Africa for their annual golf holiday had introduced the variant.

Also on Wednesday, the Austrian capital of Vienna began administering the first doses of AstraZeneca to those older than 65, hoping to speed up its campaign to inoculate the majority of its roughly 2 million residents.

“There is no reason to continue to block this,” the medical director of the Vienna health association, Michael Binder, said Wednesday, describing AstraZeneca as a “valuable vaccine” with “adequate efficacy”.

The World Health Organisation has said that the AstraZeneca vaccine could be given to people over 65, but France and Germany refused to authorise it for that age group.

French Health Minister Olivier Veron has since reversed course, saying Monday the vaccine would be extended to those between 65-75 with comorbidities.

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TRAVEL NEWS

Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

The mandatory EU-wide mask requirement for air travel is set to be dropped from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still require passengers to wear masks on some or all flights

Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

Europe-wide facemask rules on flights are set to be ditched as early as next week in light of new recommendations from health and air safety experts.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) dropped recommendations for mandatory mask-wearing in airports and during flights in updated Covid-19 safety measures for travel issued on Wednesday, May 11th.

The new rules are expected to be rolled out from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still continue to require the wearing of masks on some or all of flights. And the updated health safety measures still say that wearing a face mask remains one of the best ways to protect against the transmission of the virus.

The joint EASA/ECDC statement reminded travellers that masks may still be required on flights to destinations in certain countries that still require the wearing of masks on public transport and in transport hubs.

It also recommends that vulnerable passengers should continue to wear a face mask regardless of the rules, ideally an FFP2/N95/KN95 type mask which offers a higher level of protection than a standard surgical mask.

“From next week, face masks will no longer need to be mandatory in air travel in all cases, broadly aligning with the changing requirements of national authorities across Europe for public transport,” EASA executive director Patrick Ky said in the statement. 

“For passengers and air crews, this is a big step forward in the normalisation of air travel. Passengers should however behave responsibly and respect the choices of others around them. And a passenger who is coughing and sneezing should strongly consider wearing a face mask, for the reassurance of those seated nearby.”  

ECDC director Andrea Ammon added: “The development and continuous updates to the Aviation Health Safety Protocol in light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic have given travellers and aviation personnel better knowledge of the risks of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and its variants. 

“While risks do remain, we have seen that non-pharmaceutical interventions and vaccines have allowed our lives to begin to return to normal. 

“While mandatory mask-wearing in all situations is no longer recommended, it is important to be mindful that together with physical distancing and good hand hygiene it is one of the best methods of reducing transmission. 

“The rules and requirements of departure and destination states should be respected and applied consistently, and travel operators should take care to inform passengers of any required measures in a timely manner.”

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