There are indications that three coronavirus mutations – detected both abroad and in Germany – could have a decisive influence on the course of the pandemic, either because they spread particularly quickly or because they could increase the risk of a new infection.
The first is designated B.1.1.7, a coronavirus mutation that has become known in England and is understood to be particularly contagious. The first cases in Germany became known around Christmas.
In the meantime, cases from a variant in South Africa (B.1.351) and the mutation from Brazil (P.1) have also been detected in various parts of the country.
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These are the known outbreaks
The largest known outbreaks have been in Flensburg, Freiburg and Berlin. In the capital, several patients and staff at a clinic have been infected with the B.1.1.7 variant. It is now clear that people outside the hospital have also been infected.
In Freiburg, Baden-Württemberg several cases of the variant from South Africa were detected in a Kita (daycare) at the end of January, and threw the state government's early opening plans out the window.
State premier Winfried Kretschmann of the Greens now wants to have a more targeted search for mutations through regular coronavirus tests.
Meanwhile, in Flensburg, Schleswig-Holstein, a larger cluster with the variant from Britain is emerging after an outbreak in a temporary work agency.
The cases make it clear that the virus mutations have long since not only been introduced into Germany through travel, but are already circulating domestically in various contexts.
Virus mutations had previously been detected in patients or staff at several hospitals, for example in Leipzig, Bayreuth and Berchtesgadener Land.
An outbreak is still being investigated at the Marienhospital in Steinfurt, North Rhine-Westphalia.
In Leverkusen, a home for the elderly has been affected, as well as in Limburg in Hesse, from which no exact figures on sequenced samples are yet available.
Researchers are still sequencing a sample from an outbreak at a hospital in the ski resort town of Garmisch-Paterkirchen, Bavaria.
Compiling a map of variants
PhD student Cornelius Römer has been keeping track of the variants since the beginning of January. In a publicly accessible table, he documents the cases that have become known in the media as systematically as possible.
In this way, he wants to create an overview and look at these questions: how big is the problem really? Where do clusters form? Are we underestimating the danger?
Currently, other public information about the virus' mutation is difficult to access.
A new regulation creates incentives for laboratories to perform more genome sequencing and share their data with the scientific community. But it may be a few weeks before these plans are implemented and the first results are available.
Until then, Römer will have to continue gathering his information from the web – mainly with the help of Google News and hints on Twitter.
The task is like a puzzle game. Important details are often missing from the reports. “Sometimes mutations are detected, but it is not clear exactly which sequence is involved,” Römer told T-Online.
“Or the article only talks about a suspicion, but it doesn't say why the authorities believe it could be the variant from England or South Africa.”
'It's already here'
If there are too many ambiguities, Römer prefers not to make an entry or to make the background transparent in a note.
“It doesn't matter whether it's in England, Ireland, Denmark or Portugal – the same thing is happening everywhere,” saidRömer, referring to the countries where the variant has already spread exponentially and forced governments to act.
“It's also happening here in Germany,” Römer is certain. “We just don't see it because we don't sequence enough.”
However, even without exact figures, the German government seems to take the danger posed by the coronavirus mutations quite seriously.
Its declared goal is now to reduce the number of cases even faster in order to “cut off the path” of the variants, so to speak, and to create buffers in case there is another exponential increase.
For example, the government is sealing off its borders to travellers from the Britain, Ireland, Portugal, South Africa and Brazil.