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VACCINE

German Health Minister hopeful that ‘way out of the pandemic has begun’

Germany's shutdown in place since November is having a noticeable affect, said Health Minister Jens Spahn (CDU) on Friday. He advised caution with a possible new vaccine, however.

German Health Minister hopeful that 'way out of the pandemic has begun'
Spahn (right) gives an elbow bump greeting to parliamentary health expert Karl Lauterbach (SPD) ahead of Friday's press conference. Photo: DPA

“We are seeing a positive trend in the case numbers,” said Spahn at the federal press conference. “The 7-day incidence is below 100 again, the tough measures are actually making a difference, they are working.”

On Friday, Germany's Robert Koch Institute (RKI) reported a seven-day-incidence of 94 infections per 100,000 residents.

But that is not enough, according to Spahn. “We want to bring the numbers down further.”

He added that the country's vaccine campaign would play a large role in getting – and keeping – the numbers below the desired seven-day-incidence of 50, when infection chains are easily traceable.

Spahn said he was pleased that more than 3.5 million vaccine doses had already been distributed in Germany's 16 states – of which 2.2 million had been given out.

In the first quarter of 2021, he said, the aim was to offer vaccination to all those over 80.

READ ALSO: At what point could Germany begin easing Covid restrictions?

Vaccine campaign

In the meantime, Germany expects EU regulator EMA to impose restrictions when it authorises the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the bloc as efficacy data for older people is insufficient, Spahn said.

“We're not expecting an authorisation without limits,” he told a press conference, adding that the approval could possibly carry specific indications with regards to usage in elderly people.

How strongly the warning would be worded remains to be seen, Spahn added.

The EMA is on Friday due to approve the AstraZeneca vaccine developed with the University of Oxford.

Germany's vaccine commission has said it cannot recommend the use of the jabs on people aged 65 years and older because efficacy data for the group were lacking.

Klaus Cichutek, who heads Germany's medical regulatory body Paul Ehrlich Institut, said the “foundations have essentially been laid for an approval with no restrictions for age groups” but that it would possibly be “pointed out that the data is weaker for older people”.

“As you know, the basis for approval, especially for vaccines, must be that the benefits far outweigh the risks,” said Cichutek.

AstraZeneca and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have defended the jabs, which have already been widely used in Britain on older people.

However, Spahn said the vaccine was fitting for other age groups. “”But the vaccine is easier to handle, it can be stored at refrigerator temperatures,” Spahn said.

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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