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Why Germany’s coronavirus ‘guru’ is being targeted by lockdown critics

One of Germany's top virologists has become a hate figure for conspiracy theorists and the anti-lockdown movement, leading to an ugly spat with the country's top-selling newspaper and exposing a growing rift over the role of scientists in fighting the pandemic.

Why Germany's coronavirus 'guru' is being targeted by lockdown critics
Drosten in his lab at Charité in Berlin on January 23rd. Photo: DPA

Christian Drosten, a world-leading expert on coronaviruses, has advised Chancellor Angela Merkel's government on Covid-19 measures credited with bringing the outbreak under control by early May and keeping the death toll relatively low.

READ ALSO: Quick intervention prevented 'up to 100,000' coronavirus deaths in Germany, says country's top virologist

But his high profile and frequent media appearances have also made him a lightning rod for a noisy minority angry about social distancing rules they see as too restrictive and even authoritarian.

The debate around the curly-haired scientist in his late 40s reached a peak this week when he became embroiled in a bitter public row with the tabloid-style Bild newspaper, which attempted to cast doubt on his scientific research.

'Better things to do'

The Bild row centres around preliminary results from a study by Drosten's Charité team that claimed children can spread COVID-19 as easily as adults. The issue is key as millions of parents hope to see schools completely reopen.

A Bild reporter gave Drosten just an hour to respond to a list of critical comments on the study from other scientists, provoking him to post an angry response on Twitter.

“I have better things to do,” he said, publicly shaming the reporter by posting a screenshot of the email including the journalist's phone number.

The scientists cited by Bild have distanced themselves from the article, saying their comments were simply made in the spirit of critical feedback aimed at improving research.

Drosten has also fiercely defended the study, telling Spiegel magazine that Bild was not “really interested in understanding the scientific problem”.

But hostility towards the virologist has since snowballed. An image circulating on social media showed the faces of Drosten and Nazi doctor Josef Mengele side by side, with the caption: “Trust me, I'm a doctor.”

Drosten has even reported receiving a threatening package containing a capsule of liquid and a note saying “Drink this — then you will be immune.”

The government's point man on fighting anti-Semitism, Felix Klein, slammed the Nazi image and its “demonising of an extremely deserving scientist”.

“Anyone who uses such cynical rhetoric and imagery to express their views disqualifies themselves from any further discussion,” he said.

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has also waded into the argument, saying his ministry was following the death threat “very closely, with a strategy of zero tolerance”.

'Social media swamp'

Drosten has since taken to Twitter repeatedly to defend himself — but this is a double-edged sword, as Spiegel has pointed out: “The more Drosten uses his social media power, the more he himself is drawn into the social media swamp. And this is not a good place for a scientist.”

The virologist already warned in his podcast back in March that too much media attention would push scientists to withdraw from public life.

“I see myself drawn as a cartoonish figure and it makes me feel bad,” he said, warning that a tendency to “dramatise” in the media could sow “dissatisfaction in society”.

Drosten, whose team at Berlin's Charité university hospital was the first worldwide to develop a test-kit for COVID-19, quickly found himself thrust into the spotlight when the pandemic reached Germany and he became a trusted advisor to the government.

He has been called a “guru” and “godsend” for his expertise on the virus. Polls show strong public backing for the government measures which have sharply lowered the rate of infection and allowed for an opening up of businesses and restaurants.

Drosten's podcast on the virus has consistently topped national charts since it was launched in February in collaboration with public broadcaster NDR and he has become a regular on panels and talk shows.

But opposition to virus restrictions has swelled in recent weeks, even as the states move to begin relaxing the measures, with thousands taking part in rowdy, sometimes violent demonstrations in German cities.

The movement brings together diverse groups of conspiracy theorists, political extremists, anti-vaxxers and people concerned about a curtailment of civil liberties.

Authorities have also pointed to a troubling anti-Semitic streak in some of the groups' messaging. More than 60 protests are planned across the country this weekend.

By Femke Colborne

 

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COVID-19

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. 

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