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COVID-19 VACCINES

How right-wing extremists are exploiting Austria’s vaccine debate

As Austria prepares to make vaccination against Covid-19 mandatory, intelligence services are concerned that protests against the country's restrictions are fertile ground for radicalisation.

Covid protest Vienna
The Covid-19 pandemic led to protests and a rise in anti-vaccination sentiment in Austria. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

Some radicalised activists who reject Covid vaccines and anti-virus measures are crossing borders to join protests where extremist ideology is being spread, Austria’s new domestic intelligence chief told AFP, calling the trend “very scary”.

Omar Haijawi-Pirchner said foreign activists are travelling to Austria — where Covid vaccines will become mandatory next month — to demonstrate and hold “network meetings with their partners, right-wing extremists”.

He added that the often right-wing extremists were using the gatherings to spread their ideology, including anti-Semitism, and that “we see a lot of people that are very highly radicalised”.

EXPLAINED: How does Austria’s vaccine mandate compare to other countries?

From France to the Netherlands to Germany and Belgium, European countries have been rocked by anti-vaccine protests in recent months, as governments clamp down on the unvaccinated.

In Austria, tens of thousands have taken to the streets almost weekly since the government said Covid vaccines would become mandatory from February 4th. 

Haijawi-Pirchner, 41, who took over Austria’s newly reformed DSN intelligence agency in December, said the radicalisation of some activists and the protests’ increasingly international dimension were “very, very scary for
us”.

While the DSN is not responsible for foreign intelligence gathering, it has received information pointing to a large number of well-organised activists in Germany and Switzerland, Haijawi-Pirchner told AFP in his first interview with
foreign media since his appointment.

He said the DSN had seen credible threats of violence in Austria, pointing to clashes with the police on the sidelines of protests.

READ ALSO: Austria increases protection for hospitals and test centres after protests

There are “a lot of people threatening… critical infrastructure at the moment,” including the media, health facilities and politicians, he said.

The DSN that Haijawi-Pirchner leads replaced the former BVT agency as part of far-reaching intelligence reforms.

The BVT’s reputation had been tarnished by a string of what Haijawi-Pirchner discreetly refers to as “incidents” in recent years.

These included raids on the BVT ordered by the far-right then Interior Minister Herbert Kickl in 2018 and embarrassing accusations of Austrian officials leaking information to Russia.

This, along with the perceived closeness to Moscow of Kickl’s Freedom Party (FPÖ), led to reports that other Western agencies were refraining from sharing intelligence with Vienna.

Haijawi-Pirchner has come to the DSN from a successful police career in the Lower Austria region and emphasises the agency is a fresh start.

He says he has had a “lot of communication with our partners” in other countries in the last few months.

The current level of information sharing suggests that some confidence has returned, he says, but “we are fully aware… that this process of rebuilding trust” will take months or years.

The intelligence reform means the DSN is now a “hybrid” service encompassing both intelligence and police work, a structure Haijawi-Pirchner says has been well received among Austria’s allies.

The shake-up also aimed at addressing what Haijawi-Pirchner accepts were failures around November 2020’s deadly jihadist attack in Vienna, which followed missed warnings about the perpetrator’s activities.

Haijawi-Pirchner says the reforms have led to better communication between security services.

“You can never avoid a terrorist attack by 100 percent” he says.

But “the DSN is better prepared for such a situation than the BVT”, he added.

By Jastinder Khera

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COVID-19 VACCINES

Austria recommends Covid booster shot for children aged five and over

The commission also recommends three doses of the vaccine for people who have recovered from the coronavirus disease.

Austria recommends Covid booster shot for children aged five and over

Austria’s National Vaccination Board has recommended that children from the age of five get a third dose of the Covid-19 vaccination, the “booster” dose.

“This third vaccination should take place at the latest at the beginning of the school year ahead of the expected next waves of infection in autumn”, the board said in a press statement.

The third dose is recommended six months after the second shot, the commission added.

Additionally, the updated recommendation given by the government body also clarified that a total of three vaccinations are needed for “the best possible and long-term protection”, even among people who have already been infected with Covid-19.

READ ALSO: UPDATED: The latest coronavirus restrictions in Austria

The commission stated that “from an immunological point of view, these vaccinations are to be regarded as a basic vaccination”. This means that, in the future, the Covi-19 vaccination schedule will consider three doses of an approved vaccine.

According to the board statement, an infection with the coronavirus would only lead to a postponement of the vaccinations but shouldn’t replace any dose.

Austria’s Health Minister Johannes Rauch reinforced the need for vaccination in the country, which currently has fewer than 70 per cent of its population with two doses of the vaccine up to date.

“The corona vaccination has saved the lives of countless people and continues to do so. The ongoing adaptation of recommendations ensures that new scientific findings are constantly incorporated”, Rauch said in a press statement.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What are Austria’s plans to bring back the vaccine mandate?

The new recommendation can be found on Austria’s Health Ministry website. However, the ministry hasn’t specified how the recommendation would affect the Covid-19 passes or the “green pass” validity, especially those held by people who have recovered from the disease.

Covid numbers

Austria this Monday reported 4,111 new coronavirus infections, with 89,861 PCR tests taken in 24 hours. According to the Health Ministry, there are currently 1,492 people hospitalised with the virus (26 fewer than the day before), and 124 people are in intensive care units with Covid.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, 18,054 people have died from the Covid-19.

The alpine country has currently 68.4 per cent of its population with a valid vaccination certificate, and 54.5 per cent of its population has received the third dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

READ ALSO: Austria to keep masks only in ‘essential places’ from April 16th

Austria has recently removed almost all of its coronavirus restrictions, including the need to show a valid vaccination certificate to enter bars and restaurants. The country also dropped its FFP2 mask mandate in all indoor areas except for “essential” places such as public transport, health areas, and supermarkets.

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