Quick intervention prevented ‘up to 100,000’ coronavirus deaths in Germany, says top virologist

Virologist Christian Drosten says without early testing and research, between 50,000 to 100,000 more coronavirus deaths would have occurred in Germany.

Quick intervention prevented 'up to 100,000' coronavirus deaths in Germany, says top virologist
German virologist Christian Drosten. Photo: DPA

In an interview with German news magazine Spiegel, Drosten also said it's possible that there won't be a second wave of the pandemic in the country.

But if there is, Drosten said a strict lockdown could be avoided because the country is well-prepared.

Drosten, Director of the Instiute for Virology at the Berlin University Hospital Charité, is confident that the pandemic in Germany can be kept under control.

“Maybe we can avoid a second shutdown,” he said. He added that is now a “theoretical possibility” that Germany will “get through without a second wave”.

Science now has a better understanding of the infection process. “Now we know the virus better, we know how it spreads,” said Drosten, with reference to so-called superspreaders, who tend to pass the virus on to many people when infected.

“And such an occurrence of infection can be better controlled than a uniform spread under the radar, as we assumed at the beginning,” he said.

It is important to detect and stop a possible outbreak early on by “quarantining all contact persons” without first carrying out lengthy tests, he said.

READ ALSO: Why Germany has coronavirus infections under control despite easing restrictions

Quarantine could be shorter

However, the quarantine period could be shortened considerably: in future, people who have come into contact with a coronavirus-infected person should only have to spend a week in isolation, because “the incubation period and the time in which one is contagious, all this is much shorter than initially thought”, said Drosten.

Currently the quarantine period is 14 days.

Germany is in a good situation, said the virologist. “We stopped a pandemic wave with comparatively mild measures, and we did it very efficiently.”

Unlike several other European countries, Germany allowed residents to go outside in groups of two during its lockdown, focussing instead on quickly shutting down non-essential businesses in mid-March.

It has now gradually been opening shops, restaurants and tourism infrastructure, but under strict hygiene and social distancing requirements.

READ ALSO: Coronavirus in Germany: Which restrictions are changing from Monday May 25th?

A large part of this successful disease control can be attributed to his research team at the Charité; without his coronavirus diagnostic test, Germany would have been less prepared for the pandemic.

Drosten said: “If we had not been able to test so early, if we had not informed the politicians – I believe we would now have 50,000 to 100,000 more deaths in Germany.”

READ ALSO: What's the latest on coronavirus in Germany and what do I need to know?

As of Friday May 29th, there had been a total of 182,450 confirmed coronavirus infections in Germany (an increase of about 250 from the previous day) and 8,472 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University figures.

A total of 164,080 people are reported to have recovered from the disease.

Doubts about a vaccine

Meanwhile, the Director of the Institute of Virology at the University of Bonn, Hendrick Streeck, says he is sceptical about the prospect of finding a vaccine against Covid-19.

“More than 500 vaccines against HIV have already been developed, a few have been tested for effectiveness, but none has worked,” he told the Editorial Network Germany.

READ ALSO: How worried should we be when Germany reports a higher coronavirus infection rate?

He said people should be prepared for the possibility that a coronavirus vaccine is not on the horizon, adding that predictions about a point in time when it would arrive are “not serious”.

Nevertheless, Streeck believes that the virus remains controllable. He said there may be possible new outbreaks but that Germany could deal with it.

“This (an outbreak) will perhaps happen in the autumn in a more frequent and surprising way – but I don't believe that we will see a second wave that will literally flood and overwhelm us,” he said.

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Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

High profile German virologist Christian Drosten believes Germany will see a severe spike in Covid infections after summer, and that the pandemic will not become endemic this year.

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

Drosten previously said that Germany would probably be able to declare the end of the pandemic this year.

But in an interview with Spiegel, Drosten said he had reevaluated his opinion. 

“When the Alpha variant came, it was very surprising for me. When Delta appeared I was sceptical at first, then with Omicron we had to reorient ourselves again. And since January there have already been new Omicron subtypes.

“So I would actually like to correct myself: I no longer believe that by the end of the year we will have the impression that the pandemic is over.”

READ ALSO: End is in sight for pandemic in Germany, says virologist 

Drosten also said that Germany will not see a largely Covid-free summer, which has been the case in previous years, and a further increase in infections in autumn. 

“We are actually already seeing an exponential increase in case numbers again,” Drosten said.

“The BA.5 variant (of Omicron) is simply very transmissible, and people are losing their transmission protection from the last vaccination at the same time.”

In other countries, he said, when the number of cases become high, hospitalisation and death rates also rise again. “Unfortunately, that will also be the case here,” said Drosten, but added: “Overall, however, far fewer people will become seriously ill and die than in 2021.”

Drosten said he expected many more infections from September.

“I hope that the school holidays will dampen the increase in cases somewhat. But from September, I fear we will have very high case numbers,” the head of the virology department at Berlin’s Charité hospital told Spiegel.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister lays out autumn Covid plan

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021.

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

If the government does not take any action, he predicted there would be a lot of sick leave across all industries. “That will become a real problem,” he said.

Drosten said he did not expect overcrowded intensive care units in Germany.

But the new BA.5 sub-variant, which is becoming dominant in Germany, may affect people more strongly. 

“The wheel is turning more towards disease again,” said Drosten. It is not true that a virus automatically becomes more and more harmless in the course of evolution. “That makes me even more worried about the autumn,” he said.

Drosten recommends wearing masks indoors during the colder months, saying it is “the least painful” measure.

If, in addition, “up to 40 million people could be immunised or given a booster vaccination” before winter, for example by urgently calling for company vaccinations, that would “really make a difference”, Drosten said.

In the long term, he said it’s inevitable that people will become infected with coronavirus.

He said the population immunity due to vaccinations and infections will at some point be so strong that the virus will become less important. “Then we will be in an endemic state,” said Drosten. In the worst case, however, this could take “several more winters”.

However, Drosten warned against people trying to deliberately infect themselves with Covid, saying getting the infection in summer doesn’t mean people will be protected in winter. 

Drosten himself said he has not yet contracted Covid-19.

“So far, I guess I’ve just been lucky,” he said. “I rarely put myself in risky situations, but I’m not overly cautious either.”

‘Pandemic depends on behaviour’

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI)’s latest weekly report, more outbreaks are occurring in care homes, and the number of patients in intensive care units is slightly rising as infections go up. 

The institute said there had been a 23 percent increase in the 7-day incidence compared to the previous week. On Friday the 7-day incidence stood at 618.2 infections per 100,000 people. There were 108,190 infections within the latest 24 hour period and 90 deaths. 

“The further course of the pandemic depends not only on the occurrence of new virus variants and the uptake of vaccinations on offer, it also depends to a large extent on the behaviour of the population,” said the RKI.

According to the DIVI intensive care register, the number of Covid-19 patients in ICUs had increased to 810 on Thursday this week, from about 600 at the beginning of the month.

However, that number is still low compared to previous Covid peaks when thousands of people were in intensive care in Germany.