Covid-19 mutation to become ‘dominant virus form’ in Germany

Angela Merkel's chief of staff has said he’s convinced that the coronavirus mutation, which has so far been widespread mainly in the UK, will soon become the dominant form of the virus in Germany.

Covid-19 mutation to become 'dominant virus form' in Germany
A sign on the Czech-Bavarian border telling incoming travellers to Germany to get tested right away. Photo: DPA

“We are currently seeing that we are already dealing with the mutant form in several hospitals,” said Helge Braun, head of the Chancellor's Office, to public broadcaster ARD on Sunday. 

“This means that it has arrived in our country, and therefore at some point it will take over, as it has in other countries, and will cause problems,” Braun said on the ARD talk show 'Anne Will'. 

“I am very sure of that,” he added when asked.

The mutant form of the virus was first detected in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg in late December, and has since been found in other states around Germany.

A potentially different variant was also detected following an outbreak at a Bavarian hospital, and is currently being studied.

READ ALSO: Possible new variant of coronavirus detected in Bavaria

Braun added that it was now all the more important to reduce the infection figures “very sharply,” giving the mutation less of a chance to spread.

The virus type B.1.1.7 had so far appeared mainly in the UK, but is also circulating widely in Brazil and South Africa. It has led many EU countries, including Germany, to impose strict travel bans on non-residents flying from these affected areas.

According to experts, this variant is more easily transmitted than the Covid-19 stand which has prevailed since the beginning of the pandemic. However, experts cannot yet say with certainty whether it's also more deadly.

More contagious

The Social Democratic (SPD) health politician Karl Lauterbach told Bild that the new variants are “six to eight times more contagious”.

“And if I then extrapolate the current figures, I quickly arrive at the scenario that (Charite virologist) Christian Drosten has calculated,” he added.

Drosten said that there could be a worst-case scenario of 100,000 new infections per day if Germany's current shutdown ended too early.

Due to the high numbers and deaths as well as fears over virus variants, Chancellor Angela Merkel and state leaders exteneded and tightened lockdown measures until February 14th.

The highest number of new infections registered within 24 hours, 33,777, was reported on December 18th, but this figure included 3,500 follow-up reports. Since then, the numbers have been falling.

READ ALSO: Number of new Covid-19 cases in Germany continues to fall

However, Lauterbach warned: “We will need a very hard and very well functioning lockdown, because the new variants are of a completely different calibre. They have a completely different threat potential again.” 

Lauterbach – just like Drosten – does not assume that the spread of the virus will stop in summer.

In light of the situation, several politicians spoke out against isolated calls for an end to the lockdown in mid-February.

“The threat situation is still too great,” the new Christian Democratic (CDU) leader Armin Laschet said.

School openings

Many fear that an extended shutdown could mean that schools and Kitas (day-care centres) remain closed even longer. Currently most Kitas are only open for emergency care, and some schools have moved their curriculum entirely only.

Nevertheless, the chairperson of the Conference of Ministers of Education, Britta Ernst, said that some school openings at the beginning of February would be possible. 

“Certainly not completely,” the Brandenburg education minister told the “Rheinische Post”. 

READ ALSO: Why Switzerland didn't follow Germany's lead and close schools

“But I think it is possible with the appropriate measures, for example with alternating classes.” Initially, she said, this could also apply only to final-year classes and entering-year classes.

The SPD politician said that every one of Germany's 16 states should be able to decide when to open its own schools.

Asked whether schools would remain closed until Easter, Education Minister Anja Karliczek (CDU) told Bild: “The better we get the numbers down, the earlier we can open.” 

“It is important that we think about plans now and then orient ourselves to the infection figures. Where the numbers go down, we can do face-to-face teaching,” she added, pointing out that health protection is the highest priority right now.

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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.