Austria issues travel warning for Tyrol province over COVID-19 variant

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Gondolas are pictured in front of snow covered mountain summits on Stubaier glacier in the western Austrian province of Tyrol

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria is warning against non-essential travel to its Alpine province of Tyrol because of an outbreak of the so-called South African variant of the coronavirus there, the government said on Monday.

The province, a winter sports hotspot, has so far been unable to explain how the variant arrived in the Ziller Valley, long a popular tourist area. Austrian ski lifts have been allowed to open since Dec. 24 but hotels are closed for all but business travel and restaurants can only serve take-away meals.

Tyrol's provincial government has been in talks with the national government over how to deal with the outbreak. So far, 293 cases of the South African variant have been confirmed in Tyrol and the current number of active cases is estimated to be at least 140, a government statement said.

"The government is warning against travel to Tyrol in order to prevent the South African variant from spreading, and the government asks all citizens to restrict journeys to Tyrol to those that are absolutely necessary," the statement quoted Chancellor Sebastian Kurz as saying.

Austria's coronavirus vaccination plan relies heavily on the AstraZeneca vaccine, though researchers from the University of Witwatersrand and the University of Oxford have found that it provides only minimal protection against mild or moderate infection from the South African variant in young people.

South Africa halted Monday's planned rollout of AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccinations in response to that analysis, stoking fears of a much longer cat-and-mouse battle with the pathogen.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Mark Heinrich)