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COVID-19 VACCINES

Austria formally scraps mandatory Covid vaccination law

Just months after announcing mandatory nationwide Covid vaccinations under threats of financial penalties, Austria has unanimously decided to scrap the law.

A man waits to be vaccinated at a vaccine centre in Vienna, Austria. Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP

Austria’s National Council unanimously decided to repeal the vaccination obligation law and associated regulations, the Parliament said on Thursday. 

In making the announcement, the ÖVP and Greens coalition stated that the lifting is in no way intended to reduce the relevance of the vaccination’s contribution to managing the pandemic, particularly concerning lowering the impact of severe courses of the disease. 

They continue to incentivise people to get the vaccines, but now there is no legal obligation.

End of the road for controversial mandate

The controversial measure was announced late in 2021 and had been put into effect in February, with penalties for non-compliance to be introduced in March. 

The laws included a set of regulations allowing police to check people’s vaccinated status. Those that could not prove they were either vaccinated, or recently recovered from the disease, would have to pay a fine.

Before these penalties were introduced however, the law was suspended until August. 

At the time, the government said the suspension was due to the combined impact of the lower virulence of the Omicron variant and the impact of widespread vaccination coverage across the country. 

“The omicron variant changed the situation”, health minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) said at the time. 

He added that the law was introduced in a different context and was supported by “a clear majority” at the time when hospitals were full and “intensive care units were on the limit”.

The minister said that the new variant has reduced the effectiveness of vaccination against infections and has caused less severe courses of the disease.

“Even people who are willing to vaccinate in principle are now more difficult to convince of the need for a third dose”.

Rauch said the obligation to vaccinate did not increase the take up of the Covid jab. Instead, it “opened deep trenches in Austrian society”, according to the minister.

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COVID-19 STATS

Could Austria be spared another wave of Covid this winter?

Specialists in Austria - and worldwide - can't agree if the Covid-19 pandemic is nearing its end, and many remain cautious. Here's what you need to know.

Could Austria be spared another wave of Covid this winter?

The World Health Organisation’s head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently said that the pandemic was not over yet, but that “the end is in sight”. Similarly, US President Joe Biden stated: “The pandemic is over, but we still have a problem with Covid.”

In Austria, experts are cautiously optimistic. Dorothee von Laer, a virologist at the Medical University of Innsbruck, said: “A pandemic is over when a high level of immunity has built up in the population, and that is probably the case everywhere in the world except in China”, Austrian daily newspaper Der Standard reported.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to get the new adapted Covid-19 vaccine in Austria

Herwig Kollaritsch, infectologist and member of Austria’s national vaccination panel (NIG), has a similar view. “We are increasingly getting into a somewhat better situation because the immunity level in the population is rising due to many vaccinations and infections.”

Though he is more cautious: “We have always had problems due to a change of variants, and even now, we are absolutely not safe from surprises”.

New variants

The biggest fear ahead of winter is precisely that: a change of variants, specialists say. Especially since more and more omicron mutations are being found and they can circumvent the immune defences quite well, Ulrich Elling, a molecular biologist at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, told Der Standard.

However, since all the current mutations are still omicron variants, the severe courses of the disease continue to be rare.

READ ALSO: Reader question: When should I get a fourth dose of the Covid-19 vaccine in Austria?

“We still use hospitalisation and death rates as parameters. So when it comes to that, we are out of the woods. But still, a lot of people will get sick – not very seriously, but they will get sick,” Kollaritsch said.

Elling agrees: “Of course, statements about the supposed end of the pandemic are striking a chord with people at the moment. We all want it to be over. Nevertheless, the numbers will rise again. Above all, the new variants escape our immune response more than any other variant before.”

For him, it’s wrong to say that the pandemic is over or that there won’t be a new infection wave in winter. Even though they may be of milder courses of the disease, the virus is still out there and will infect people in the coming months, he believes.

READ ALSO: From inflation to Covid: What to expect from Austria’s winter season

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