About 100 suspected cases in Austria of new virus variant

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In Austria, about 100 suspected cases of the new British coronavirus variant B 1.1.7. have been registered so far. “These are more or less distributed throughout Austria,” Health Minister Rudolf Anschober said Friday at a press conference in Vienna. These will be sequenced to obtain final certainty. The department head expects the final results by the middle of next week. “But I would be surprised if we had many negative results.”

If fully spread, the mutation is 50 percent more infectious than the previously dominant viral variant, according to current scientific findings. That would mean the reproduction factor – how many people an infected person infects on average – would increase by about 0.5. Currently, the factor is 0.97. This means that one person infected with SARS-CoV-2 infects another person. If the reproduction factor were to increase to 1.5, this would mean that ten infected people would infect 15 more. The number of infected people would increase by a factor of eight or even ten within a few weeks. “The good news is that all the measures taken so far are also useful against B1.1.7,” Anschober said. “We have to implement the measures once again very consistently. All over Europe, readjustments are being made.”

However, one had hit the brakes, not least because of the development of the new variant, regarding the measures after the planned end of the lockdown on January 24, the health minister explained. “We had an almost ready concept as far as Jan. 24 is concerned.” The situation was being analyzed all over Europe, he said, and people were in close contact with each other. A forecast of the spread is very difficult, he said. Nevertheless, the government intends to present a concept for further measures in the coming days. As for further developments, Anschober was nevertheless “cautiously optimistic”: “There are more vaccinated people every day, and we now have the most difficult weather.”

The department head said that entry conditions are currently under review. “After all, there are intact landing bans for the United Kingdom, South Africa and other regions.” One is looking at the entry regulations with regard to testing possibilities, and one wants to “massively strengthen” the control network for variant B 1.1.7, Anschober said. On the one hand, this concerns the sentinel measuring system at physicians in private practice, who take swabs in the event of positive tests and send the samples to MedUni. So far, four suspected cases of B 1.1.7 have emerged. A second point is the measurement system via sewage treatment plants, and a third point is to clarify which virus variant is involved in PCR tests.

Microbiologist Andreas Bergthaler said it is assumed that the “somewhere between 70 and 100 suspected cases” are not just individual clusters, but that the virus variant is already present over a wider area. “We can’t give exact numbers yet, there are still too few samples.” A suspected case, by the way, means by definition that a mutation of the virus is confirmed, but the experts do not yet know which genome is otherwise present in the virus. This is then done in a process called sequencing, in which the entire genetic material of the virus is broken down to say for sure what the variant is. According to the researcher, this takes about seven calendar days. The scientists’ goal is 400 whole-genome sequencings per week.

Bergthaler also addressed the sewage treatment plants: Their monitoring had led to the first reports of the presence of the virus variant in Viennese wastewater on Thursday, for example. The monitoring of wastewater treatment plants is to cover the largest plants in the country. This means that the wastewater from just under half of Austria’s population is to be tested on a weekly or at least bi-weekly basis. “It’s also a good place to watch the next wave rolling in,” the microbiologist explained. If such a wave is approaching, the virus load in the wastewater increases.

The researcher appealed to “take the matter seriously, it is a new situation.” The virus has formed a surprising number of variants, he said. The more people with infections there are, the more the pathogen also has the chance to change and form variants, he said.

Virologist Christina Nicolodi said many mutations happen via patients with weak immune systems, where the virus can stay in the body for a long time. The problem with the British variant and the possibly even more infectious South African variant appears to be the much higher transmission load. “No change in disease patterns has been noted so far. But there is a higher risk of infection and therefore more severe courses are possible. So there is more pressure on the health care system, and possibly a change in the numbers of deaths,” the researcher explained.

The good news is that both currently approved vaccines are likely to work with the new variants. “You look at the evolution of the virus, and in vaccinated people, you look at the effect on the new variant,” Nicolodi said. And that, he said, has shown both vaccines are effective. AstraZeneca’s vector vaccine, which is in the approval process, is also being tested for effectiveness on new variants. Anschober said he expects a decision on approval for AstraZeneca’s vaccine on Jan. 29.

On the subject of vaccination, the health minister said his goal was to have achieved vaccination coverage of the Austrian population “in the course of the summer.” Denmark had set a target of achieving this by mid-June. That would be possible, he said, if everything – approvals, production, delivery – worked out. “That would be the best case.”

  • Source: APA/picture: pixabay.com
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