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Austria to isolate province in EU's worst outbreak of South African coronavirus variant

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria is stepping up its response to the European Union’s biggest outbreak of the so-called South African coronavirus variant in its Alpine province of Tyrol, by requiring those leaving Tyrol to show a negative test result as of Friday.

FILE PHOTO: Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz holds a news conference as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in Vienna, Austria December 18, 2020. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner/File Photo

A year ago Tyrol, a winter sports hotspot bordering Germany, Italy and Switzerland, was the scene of one of Europe’s worst instances of virus spreading at the ski resort of Ischgl. Thousands of tourists from across Europe were infected.

Despite that damaging episode, the provincial government has resisted pressure from Vienna to do more to curb the new variant that threatens Austria’s vaccination plans. After days of fraught negotiation, the national government said on Tuesday it would screen those leaving Tyrol, starting in three days.

“We have a responsibility throughout Austria to fight mutations against which vaccinations are less or maybe barely effective,” conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told a news conference, a day after his government asked the public not to travel to Tyrol unless they have to.

Police will require anyone leaving the province to show a negative coronavirus test result no more than 48 hours old, and the measure will last 10 days. It will not apply to East Tyrol, which is separated from the rest of the province, or to children.

So far 293 cases of the variant have been confirmed in Tyrol, and 129 of them are currently active, the government said. The authorities have been unable to explain how it arrived in the province where lockdown measures have kept hotels closed to tourists, though ski lifts are open.

As in much of the EU, Austria’s national vaccination plan relies heavily on the AstraZeneca vaccine and a recent study has shaken confidence in its effectiveness against the South African variant, showing it had little effect against mild disease caused by that variant.

“Almost 50% of Europeans will be vaccinated with AstraZeneca in the coming months. If this drug is less effective then we must be aware that these mutations, that these variants, are extremely dangerous for us,” Kurz said.

On Monday, his government had loosened Austria’s third coronavirus lockdown, letting non-essential shops reopen, including in Tyrol, despite stubbornly high infections nationally.

The opposition Social Democrats criticised the bickering between the provincial and national governments, both of which are led by Kurz’s conservatives, saying in a statement they had “learned nothing from Ischgl”.

Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Alex Richardson and Grant McCool

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