EXPLAINED: What are Austria’s plans to bring back the vaccine mandate?

Austria's mandatory Covid-19 vaccination law has been surrounded by controversies and a nationwide suspension, but there are indications it may be on its way back soon.

EXPLAINED: What are Austria's plans to bring back the vaccine mandate?
Medical personnel is given the Pfizer-Biontech Covid-19 corona virus vaccine at the Favoriten Clinic in Vienna, Austria, on December 27, 2020 on the occasion of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 corona virus vaccine rollout. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / various sources / AFP)

Even as the number of new coronavirus infections steadily drops in Austria, the country has resumed talks of a Covid-19 vaccine mandate – perhaps not for all citizens, but for some.

Several of Austria’s leading experts have been public about their view that the country should “protect those particularly at risk” ahead of what they view as a likely autumn wave.

Virologist Dorothee von Laer, who has become one of the most widely recognised specialists during the pandemic, has made it clear that compulsory vaccination for those over 60-years-old might be needed if vaccination rates don’t go up in the next few weeks.

READ ALSO: Austria to keep masks only in ‘essential places’ from April 17th

The goal of a vaccine mandate for this group would be to prevent the overload of the health system, as 90 per cent of hospitalised and deceased are over 60, she told the Austrian parliament during a hearing on Covid measures, Der Standard reported.

Vaccine mandate for ‘at risk’ patients

Dr. von Laer is not alone. Also at the hearing and defending a compulsory vaccination for at-risk patients was lawyer Christiane Druml, chairperson of the Bioethics Commission and one of the members of Austria’s GECKO commission – a group of specialists tasked with assessing the pandemic situation and possible measures.

Druml said that compulsory vaccination is also the most extreme measure. Still, vaccination shouldn’t be seen as a private matter. She highlighted that the “principle of solidarity” should be taken into account when it comes to vaccination.

The bioethics expert advised that compulsory vaccination should apply to groups such as health professionals, people over 60 and high-risk patients of all ages, according to statements given to the newspaper Kurier.

Revaluation of the mandate is coming up

Austria’s mandatory vaccination law received presidential approval in early February and came into force. However, as support dwindled, other countries failed to institute similar measures, and vaccination rates continued to stall; the law was suspended just days before a new stage was set to start, one that would have unvaccinated people receive fines at random checks.

READ ALSO: Austria to scrap mandatory Covid vaccinations

The official reason for the suspension, Constitutional Minister Karoline Edstadler (ÖVP) announced in early March, as that the “burden on fundamental rights” of such a measure was not “necessary” at the time, as the omicron wave of the coronavirus resulted in fewer severe cases.

The law itself provided for a suspension, and Health Minister Johannes Ruach (Greens) explained concerns about new variants and seasonal spikes in new infections as winter approaches could lead to a change in policy.

Additionally, experts would have to consider that measures commonly taken to halt the spread of the virus, from mandatory masks to lockdowns, might not be well received after two years of pandemic and summer, basically without any restrictions.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How Austria’s vaccine mandate will work

Rauch said that the Austrian vaccination committee would meet again this May to report back to the government to make a new decision over compulsory vaccination.

“Vaccination protects”

Even as the vaccination mandate is seen as a “last resort”, doctors and specialists continue to plead with the Austrian population to get vaccinated.

Health Minister Rauch, on several occasions, reiterated: “the vaccine works, and the vaccine protects”, asking people who haven’t received any vaccination to get their shot and those who haven’t taken their booster to protect themselves.

READ ALSO: Why are the numbers of fully-vaccinated people going down in Austria?

Austria currently has 68.46 per cent of its population fully vaccinated. As more people let their Covid passes expire without taking the third dose, the number decreases. Just under 76 per cent of the population has at least one dose of the Covid vaccine, and 54.4 per cent have received the third dose.

On Thursday, April 21st, the country reported 11,948 new coronavirus infections. A total of 1,704 people were hospitalised with the virus, 172 fewer than the day before, and 130 were in intensive care units.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, 17,057 people have died from Covid-19 in Austria.

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What to know about Austria’s new advice on Covid vaccines

As the coronavirus pandemic progressed, each country developed its own vaccination recommendation, which often changed. Here is the new advice from the Austrian vaccination panel.

What to know about Austria's new advice on Covid vaccines

The Austrian National Vaccination Panel has updated its recommendations on Covid vaccination on several points, the Ministry of Health announced.

“Special attention continues to be paid to the completion of the basic immunisation, which is recommended for all persons five years of age and older, and to the booster vaccination,” according to the Ministry of Health.

The booster shot is generally available to all persons 12 years of age and older and is free of charge, but it is especially recommended for persons 60 years of age and older and those at risk.

READ ALSO: Masks against Covid and flu: What’s ahead for Austria this winter

In Austria, the basic immunisation against Covid-19 consists of three vaccine doses. A fourth dose, also known as a booster shot, is also recommended.

What is new in the recommendation?

Austria is adding a new coronavirus vaccine, from Sanofi (VidPrevtyn Beta), to the list of offers against the virus. The new vaccine is protein-based and has already been approved by the European authorities. 

In Austria, the Sanofi vaccine can be used from the third vaccination onwards on people older than 18. The offer will be available at the vaccination sites in the coming week at the earliest, according to the Ministry. 

READ ALSO: Colds and flu: What to do and say if you get sick in Austria

Another change is that the variant Comirnaty Original/Omicron BA.4-5 from BioNTech/Pfizer will also be used for the third vaccination of children aged 5 to 11 years. 

This vaccine is specially adapted to the virus variants Omicron BA.4 and 5. It is now available for children in a special application shot that should be in vaccination sites starting next week at the earliest. 

READ ALSO: What to expect from the ski season in Austria this winter

Also included in the recommendations is a clarification specifically on an additional booster vaccination (fifth vaccination). 

People at risk from the age of 18, and those from the age of 60 can receive the additional booster vaccination four months after the fourth vaccination. According to the vaccination panel, no fifth vaccination is necessary for healthy people under 60.