By Francois Murphy
VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria on Monday opted against placing the whole Alpine province of Tyrol under quarantine to contain an outbreak of the so-called South African variant of the coronavirus, instead urging the public not to go there unless they have to.
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 takeaway meals.
Tyrol's provincial government has opposed the idea of a province-wide quarantine in talks with the national government on how to contain the variant. Both governments are led by the conservative People's Party. Austria loosened a national lockdown on Monday, letting non-essential shops reopen.
"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," Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was quoted as saying in a government statement.
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, the statement added.
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.
Austria's government asked that anyone who has been to Tyrol in the past two weeks get a COVID-19 test, and urged those leaving Tyrol to do the same immediately before travelling.
Tyrol has already seen Austria's biggest coronavirus outbreak, at the ski resort of Ischgl last year. That prompted accusations of mismanagement that local authorities deny, and shook confidence in the province's anti-coronavirus efforts.
(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Alex Richardson)