Covid EU: South Africa variant ‘hotspot’, Tyrol, goes into lockdown

EU’s South Africa covid-variant hotspot Tyrol has gone into lockdown, with no one allowed to leave the Austrian region without a negative coronavirus test.

Austria’s leader announced the measure on Tuesday as authorities try to prevent the spread of a coronavirus variant first discovered in South Africa.

Some 293 cases of the more contagious variant have been confirmed in Tyrol. More than 120 of those cases are currently active, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said.

Concentrated in the Schwaz district, east of Innsbruck, they represent he biggest known current outbreak of the variant in the European Union, authorities said.

Officials in Tyrol (pictured) initially resisted restrictions, but on Monday drew up a list of measures that included more police checks on mask-wearing and social distancing, and a requirement for negative antigen tests before people can use cable cars and ski lifts

Officials in Tyrol (pictured) initially resisted restrictions, but on Monday drew up a list of measures that included more police checks on mask-wearing and social distancing, and a requirement for negative antigen tests before people can use cable cars and ski lifts

Officials in Tyrol (pictured) initially resisted restrictions, but on Monday drew up a list of measures that included more police checks on mask-wearing and social distancing, and a requirement for negative antigen tests before people can use cable cars and ski lifts

Officials in Tyrol initially resisted restrictions, but on Monday drew up a list of measures that included more police checks on mask-wearing and social distancing, and a requirement for negative antigen tests before people can use cable cars and ski lifts.

The federal government in Vienna also warned Austrians on Monday against traveling to the province as schools, shops, hairdressing salons, museums and zoos reopened across the country after a roughly six-week lockdown.

Kurz said Tuesday that for 10 days starting Friday, people wanting to leave Tyrol – a popular skiing region which borders Germany, Italy and Switzerland – will have to show a negative coronavirus test produced within the previous 48 hours.

Police, with support from the military, will enforce the new rule on the roads, Kurz said. He also called for Tyrol to act to ensure the variant doesn’t spread further within the province.

The measure won’t apply to East Tyrol, a part of the province that is separated from Tyrol proper by a sliver of another Austrian province and Italian territory and is relatively unaffected, Kurz said. 

Some 293 cases of the more contagious variant have been confirmed in Tyrol. More than 120 of those cases are currently active, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (pictured) said Tuesday

He said Friday was chosen as the start date to allow time for preparations and because a ‘mad rush and chaos’ wouldn’t be helpful.

The chancellor pointed to preliminary results from a small study that showed the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, one of the three vaccines cleared for use in the EU, was only minimally effective against mild to moderate cases of COVID-19 caused by the South African variant.

So far, at least 24 countries – including the UK, Austria, Norway and Japan – have found cases of the variant. 

‘That is a big problem because nearly 50% of the vaccine we will have delivered by the summer comes from AstraZeneca,’ Kurz said. 

‘So…we must do everything to prevent the spread of this variant, and if that doesn’t succeed, at least to slow its spread.’

‘If a mutation like the South African one spreads quickly and strongly, that will cost a lot of people their lives and the road to normality will be delayed again by months,’ the chancellor told reporters in Vienna.

A billboard with the inscription 'Tirol. Back to you.' is pictured at the Gerlosplatte near Gerlos in Tyrol, Austria on February 4, 2021. Tyrol is home to the ski resort of Ischgl, the location of what is considered one of Europe's earliest 'super-spreader' events of the pandemic last year

A billboard with the inscription 'Tirol. Back to you.' is pictured at the Gerlosplatte near Gerlos in Tyrol, Austria on February 4, 2021. Tyrol is home to the ski resort of Ischgl, the location of what is considered one of Europe's earliest 'super-spreader' events of the pandemic last year

A billboard with the inscription ‘Tirol. Back to you.’ is pictured at the Gerlosplatte near Gerlos in Tyrol, Austria on February 4, 2021. Tyrol is home to the ski resort of Ischgl, the location of what is considered one of Europe’s earliest ‘super-spreader’ events of the pandemic last year

Austria’s initial response to the Tyrol outbreak drew criticism in neighbouring Germany. 

Ahead of Tuesday’s announcement, a senior official in Bavaria’s main governing party said that ‘from our point of view, what Austria is doing is irresponsible.’

‘To be honest, it’s a farce – on one hand issuing a warning to their own population against travel to Tyrol province, and on the other hand easing (restrictions) in the whole country, including in Tyrol,’ Markus Blume, the general secretary of the Christian Social Union party, told German news channel n-tv.

Tyrol is home to the ski resort of Ischgl, the location of what is considered one of Europe’s earliest ‘super-spreader’ events of the pandemic nearly a year ago. 

An independent commission later found that regional authorities acted too slowly to shut down ski resorts.

Since the start of the pandemic, Austria has recorded 424,896 cases of Covid-19, and 8,032 related deaths. It crossed the 8,000 death milestone on Sunday. Pictured: Graphs showing teh 7-day rolling average number of coronavirus cases (top) and related deaths (bottom)

Since the start of the pandemic, Austria has recorded 424,896 cases of Covid-19, and 8,032 related deaths. It crossed the 8,000 death milestone on Sunday. Pictured: Graphs showing teh 7-day rolling average number of coronavirus cases (top) and related deaths (bottom)

Since the start of the pandemic, Austria has recorded 424,896 cases of Covid-19, and 8,032 related deaths. It crossed the 8,000 death milestone on Sunday. Pictured: Graphs showing teh 7-day rolling average number of coronavirus cases (top) and related deaths (bottom)

Austria is currently under a nationwide curfew, ordering people to stay at home from 8pm to 6pm, and on February 8, Austria extended a landing ban for flights coming from the UK, South Africa and Brazil until at least February 21.

While shops, museums, libraries and zoos are still open, restaurants and bars are open only for takeout or delivery services, with dining in banned.

In ski resorts, cable cars and ski areas have been allowed to reopen, but hotels and restaurants are still closed in an attempt to prevent tourists coming from abroad.

Since the start of the pandemic, Austria has recorded 424,896 cases of Covid-19, and 8,032 related deaths. It crossed the 8,000 death milestone on Sunday.  

What is the South African variant? 

The South African variant carries the E484K mutation which experts suggest may be better at evading the human immune response.

While there is no evidence that the South African variant causes more serious illness in people who become infected, there are fears that it can spread more rapidly and that vaccines may not be as effective against it. 

The vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech is effective against this variant, according to a study from the US.

However, a separate study found that the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab was not effective at preventing mild illness caused by the more infectious South African mutation.

But the jab will protect against deaths and severe disease amid the spread of the South African variant, according to researchers.

England’s deputy chief medical officer has said this strain is unlikely to become dominant in the UK over the coming months.

So far, at least 36 countries – including the UK, Austria, Norway and Japan – have found cases of the variant. 

Why do viruses mutate?

There have been many mutations in Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, since it emerged in 2019, some more significant than others.

However, this is to be expected as this virus is an RNA virus, like the flu and measles, and these tend to mutate and change.

Mutations usually occur by chance, and the pressure on the virus to evolve is increased by the fact that so many millions of people have now been infected.

Sometimes mutations can lead to weaker versions of a virus, and it could even be that the changes are so small they have little impact on how it behaves.

If new variants spread faster it means they are likely to infect more people, increasing the number of cases.

Viruses evolve in order to survive – mutations are a simple mistake that give the virus a chance to keep infecting people.

What is a mutation?

In simple terms, a virus delivers a set of instructions into a cell in the body and the cell follows these instructions to make more new virus.

The instructions are replicated, so that each new virus that is created gets a single copy of the copied code.

Sometimes there is a mistake in the instructions, and when this virus infects a new cell it will either fail, or the virus will continue to replicate the mutated code.

Confirmed cases of South African variant by country: 

World total (36 countries)

South Africa

Austria

United Kingdom

Israel

Germany

Switzerland

Belgium

France

The Netherlands

Mayotte

Mozambique

Finland

Ireland

Australia

Botswana

New Zealand

Sweden

Denmark

UAE

USA

Canada

South Korea

Kenya

Luxembourg

Turkey

Japan

Zambia

Norway

China

Brazil

Taiwan

Spain

Portugal

Panama

Vietnam

Bangladesh 

 1,468

696

293

114

80

35

33

33

25

22

22

19

15

11

10

10

7

6

5

5

5

3

2

2

2

2

1

1

1

1

1

1

1

1

1

1

1 

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