In an interview with Spiegel published on Friday, the chief virologist at Berlin's Charité hospital said it would be dangerous to get rid of Covid-19 measures too early when vaccinations are still ongoing.
Drosten said no-one knows for certain how long the pandemic will last, but “we absolutely have to manage not to fly off the track”. Germany must now persevere and “put on the brakes, even if they are rusty”.
In view of the more contagious virus variant B.1.1.7 from Great Britain, the case numbers must now be pushed down as far as possible, the virologist said.
“It would be absolutely desirable to at least aim for zero now,” he said. At the moment, there is still a “unique opportunity” to prevent the spread of this variant in Germany or at least to slow it down considerably.
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A study proved that the virus mutant is up to 35 per cent more infectious. “This is unfortunately more dangerous than if it had become more deadly, because each new infected person will thus infect more people, and each of these people will in turn infect more people. So the number of infected people will grow exponentially.”
'Younger people will be more affected'
If case numbers are not brought down low enough now, he said, there could be negative consequences in the spring and summer.
“When the elderly and perhaps some of the at-risk groups will have been vaccinated, there will be huge economic, social, political and perhaps legal pressure to end the coronavirus measures,” Drosten said.
But if this happens, he said a lot of people would become infected with Covid-19 within a short time. “Then we would no longer have case numbers of 20,000 or 30,000, but in the worst case: 100,000 per day,” Drosten warned.
Younger people are more likely to be affected then, and they are less likely to have severe courses of the disease than older people.
“But if a lot of young people get infected, the intensive care units will be full again,” Drosten said. “And there are still many deaths. It's just that it hits younger people.”
Drosten also doesn't assume that numbers will automatically drop again when it gets warmer.
“The fact that we had such a relaxed summer in 2020 probably had to do with the fact that our case numbers stayed below a critical threshold in the spring,” Drosten said. “But that is no longer the case now.”
'More could have been done'
On Wednesday the German government and states tightened the lockdown measures. One of the new rules includes a decree requiring employers to allow employees to work from home (known as home office in Germany) if possible. However, there is no firm right to working from home.
Drosten described the working from home regulations as insufficient. “More could certainly have been done,” he said.
It would have been helpful to take a cue from the Irish experience in autumn, he added. “Ireland pushed strictly for 'home offices' at that time, and that was apparently very effective,” Drosten said. “This automatically reduces occupancy in public transport.”
According to the latest figures from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), more than 50,000 people have now died in Germany in connection with coronavirus infections. The total number of infected people is 2.1 million.