Europeans face tighter mask rules

BERLIN — Faced with new, more contagious, strains of coronavirus and a winter surge in cases, European nations have begun to tighten mask regulations in the hope that they can slow the spread of the virus.

Germany on Tuesday night made it mandatory for people riding on public transportation or in supermarkets to wear medical style masks: either N95s, the Chinese or European equivalent KN95 or FFP2s, or a surgical mask.

It follows a stricter regulation from the German state of Bavaria this week that required N95 equivalents in stores and on public transport. Austria will introduce the same measures from Monday.

Meanwhile in France, the country’s health advisory council on Monday discouraged the wearing of inefficient cloth and homemade masks, also arguing they may not offer sufficient protection against the more highly transmissible coronavirus variants.

“Since we don’t have any new weapons against them, the only thing we can do is improve the ones we already have,” Daniel Camus, a member of the council, told France’s public broadcaster.

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The new European recommendations follow increases in supply since the early days of the pandemic, when there were concerns that the use of medical masks by the public would mean there would not be enough for front-line medical workers. But critics still point to the cost for families and the impact on the environment, while there are still debates over the helpfulness of such measures.

There is a growing body of scientific evidence that has indicated that mask use in general can help prevent the spread of coronavirus. One study published in the Lancet medical journal in June compared transmission rates across 16 countries and found that “both N95 and surgical masks have a stronger association with protection compared with single-layer masks.”

Another, by Duke University in August, compared the efficacy of different face coverings and found that fitted N95 masks were the most effective. Normal surgical masks are about three times more effective than cloth masks in preventing the spread of virus droplets, according to a 2013 study.

Still, the World Health Organization currently advises that medical masks be restricted to medical workers, people who have covid-19 symptoms, those coming into contact with them, and those over 60 or at high risk. It recommends fabric masks for the general public.

Meanwhile, frustration is mounting from Europe to North America over reduced shipments of Pfizer’s covid-19 vaccine while the U.S. pharmaceutical company increases production capacity at its Belgian plant.

Italy has threatened legal action. The leader of Canada’s most populous province said Pfizer’s chief executive should be chased “with a firecracker.” A top European Union official invoked the principle of “pacta sunt servanda,” a Latin phrase meaning “agreements must be kept.”

The EU and many nations are under pressure for what is seen as the slow start to their vaccination campaigns compared with countries like Israel and the United Kingdom. Pfizer compounded the problem Friday when it announced a temporary reduction in deliveries so it could upscale its Puurs, Belgium, plant, which supplies all shots delivered outside the United States.

The delay, which the pharmaceutical giant said would last for a few weeks, affects not only the number of people who can get inoculated during that period but also throws off the careful choreography that governments mapped out to get elderly residents and caregivers the required two doses within a strict timetable of several weeks.

The EU now expects Pfizer to deliver across the 27-nation bloc 92{50531db320f8e8a316d79d6a285e47c71b6e4f6739df32858cb86474d7e720e9} of what was expected over this week and the next one. The missing 8{50531db320f8e8a316d79d6a285e47c71b6e4f6739df32858cb86474d7e720e9} is expected to be recovered during the week of Feb. 15.

Separately, India began supplying coronavirus vaccines to its neighboring countries Wednesday, as the world’s largest vaccine-making nation strikes a balance between maintaining enough doses to inoculate its own people and helping developing countries without the capacity to produce their own shots.

India’s Foreign Ministry said the country would send 150,000 shots of the AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine, manufactured locally by Serum Institute of India, to Bhutan and 100,000 shots to the Maldives on Wednesday.

Vaccines also will be sent to Bangladesh, Nepal, Burma and the Seychelles in coming weeks, the ministry said.

Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastava said the government would ensure that domestic vaccine-makers have adequate stocks to meet India’s domestic needs as it supplies partner countries in the coming months.

Information for this article was contributed by Loveday Morris and Rick Noack of The Washington Post; and by Raf Casert, Rob Gillies, Nicole Winfield, Sam Petrequin, Karel Janicek, Frank Jordans, Aniruddha Ghosal, Ashok Sharma and Maria Cheng of The Associated Press.