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ANALYSIS: Can Germany get on board with a ‘no Covid’ strategy?

The number of coronavirus infections in Germany is going down. But can the country almost get rid of Covid-19? Some scientists believe so.

ANALYSIS: Can Germany get on board with a 'no Covid' strategy?
Empty tables in Dresden on February 2nd. Photo: DPA

It's the news everyone in Germany has been waiting for: the second coronavirus wave appears to be past its peak.

The numbers of new infections are decreasing, by about 18 percent every week. But it's come at a cost: severe restrictions have been in place on everyday life in Germany for months.

Currently schools and daycare centre (Kitas) are closed except for emergency care, most shops are shut and socialising is restricted. Wherever possible, people are working from home.

These lockdown measures are scheduled to last nationwide until the end of February 14th.

If the number keeps going down, then Germany will hit its target of 50 new infections per 100,000 inhabitants in seven days.

That's the level authorities have been aiming for so that health officials can trace contacts of people infected by coronavirus. On Wednesday the 7-day incidence stood at 82.9.

The question is should restrictions be eased when this target is reached or is a whole new strategy needed?

Threat of a Covid resurgence

There is a huge debate over whether lockdown restrictions should be relaxed when this target is reached – or even before then.

Scientists, such as the Charité's Christian Drosten, have warned against loosening the measures too quickly due to the threat of variants spreading, and not enough people receiving the vaccination.

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

The worry is that a resurgence would come back full force.

It's not the first time that the number of new Covid cases have dropped off after a sharp increase in Germany.

Last spring, the health system was in danger of being overloaded. At that time, too, public life was severely curtailed – with success. The number of infections subsided and the spread of the virus seemed to be under control.

But by the end of summer, infections began to soar.

Once more, everyday life was restricted. Politicians hesitated to do this at first, but then more drastic measures were put in place until finally – only in these past weeks – some success was reached.

There is massive concern that this situation could be repeated, but may be worse due to variants: lockdown relaxations could lead to more infections, necessitating new restrictions, and so on.

The World in Data chart below shows how Covid-19 cases have been falling in Germany.

Time for a change in strategy?

“For many, the thought of this yo-yo lockdown continuing until the end of the year is depressing,” Michael Hallek told the Berlin Tagesspiegel.

Hallek is the director of the Department of Internal Medicine at the University Hospital in Cologne and has been looking after Covid 19 patients for months.

Some doctors like Hallek are considering what a way out of the lockdown vicious circle might look like. For them, one thing is clear: Germany's strategy so far in dealing with the virus is inefficient.

Although public life has been shut down since November, more than 50,000 people have died in this country from or with Covid-19.

Containing the spread of the virus, living with it, “flattening the curve” – that doesn't work in the long run, said Hallek. The virus is too contagious for that and too often causes severe illness in people.

Hallek and other researchers instead propose a change in strategy.

Relaxations of the lockdown should not happen at a 7-day incidence of 50 cases per 100,000 inhabitants – but only when the number of new infections is close to zero.

In return, restrictions would no longer apply nationwide, but only in areas where a certain incidence is exceeded.

They call this plan “no Covid”. Similar programmes – including the 'Zero Covid' strategy which aims to eliminate the virus altogether – already exist in other countries such as Taiwan, Australia or Finland.

Here, only individual cases have been reported for months, while everyday life continues almost normally.

Getting ahead of the virus

For Germany, a no Covid strategy would mean extending the current lockdown by around a month, according to Hallek. This price sounds high but may give the country a huge boost.

If the numbers of new infections are not low enough at the end of the lockdown, another rapid outbreak could develop within a few weeks, similar to what has happened in the UK and Ireland in recent months.

All the more so if the new, more contagious mutations of the virus then spread here too.

This danger must be prevented, said Hallek. “The clear recommendation is therefore to extend the lockdown,” he said.

If new infections were close to zero when the lockdown measures were lifted, the vicious circle of the pandemic rising and falling could be disrupted, said Dirk Brockmann, who is head of the Complex Systems Research Group at Humboldt University Berlin and models the spread of diseases.

Brockmann told Tagesspiegel that if this doesn't happen, the waves will continue. That's because political decisions influence the spread of the virus and containment measures always lag behind an actual outbreak.

A person walking past a closed shop in Bad Homburg, Hesse. Photo: DPA

To stop this process, you have to turn it around, said Brockmann, and get ahead of the virus.

Once infection numbers are low, health departments can track individual outbreaks.

“If we can respond more quickly to outbreaks, the situation changes completely,” said Brockmann, although the mechanisms for dealing with the virus are the same: testing, contact tracing, isolation.

But the fewer new cases that occur, the easier it is to track them and break chains of infection – as was done for a while in the summer of 2020.

Put simply: the faster testing and isolation is carried out, the more successful containment will be.

“We therefore have to react in an automated way,” said Brockmann: “If the incidence of infection does increase, measures have to be taken immediately.”

Areas where few to no infections occur could then be declared “green zones”, Brockmann suggested. In these areas, people could live their lives with fewer restrictions.

These regions, in turn, would have to be protected from the entry of the virus from “red zones” with a high incidence rate.

How exactly these zones would be defined still has to be clarified, said Brockmann.

Could this really work in Germany?

One big question is – could people in Germany be convinced of a change in strategy? After all, there's no doubt residents have grown tired of the ever-changing measures and shutdowns.

Cornelia Betsch, of the University of Erfurt, has been observing for months how the measures are received and implemented by the population.

She started the project “Covid-19 Snapshot Monitoring” (COSMO), which involves interviewing a representative sample of the population regularly, in March last year.

Since the end of 2020, Betsch said there has been a clear trend that trust in the government is sinking, especially among those who are actually in favour of the measures to protect against the virus.

READ ALSO: How Germany's Covid-19 shutdown has made this winter tougher than most

But a strategy like 'no Covid', where it is clear when measures will be taken or relaxed, could increase people's motivation, suggested Betsch.

There is opposition to these kinds of plans, though. Health Minister Jens Spahn recently said a 'zero-covid' strategy was unrealistic because Germany is not an island.

In the coming days, Michael Hallek and other researchers want to draw up measures available to political decision-makers.

Cities like Münster or Rostock show that the incidence of infection can be kept permanently low, Halleck said. This kind of success should serve as inspiration, he added.

Hallek estimates that the lockdown would have to last four to six weeks for success. By March, the whole of Germany could be a green zone, he said. “We've done it before when we were more determined.”

It remains to be seen how Germany will go forward in the pandemic. More will become clear next week after the meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel and state leaders.

But one thing is for sure: no-one wants to experience a resurgence of Covid-19 any time soon whenever this shutdown ends.

Member comments

  1. Where’s the counterpoint? Why does the Local only support those who advocate for increasingly stringent lockdowns? We have basically lowered ourselves to a standard in which the only metric that matters in our society is number of deaths from COVID. Nothing else matters — not suicides, depression, lack of education, abuse, addiction, etc. Case in point — the legal speed limit on the autobahn should be 10km/hour starting tomorrow if we really cared about “saving lives”. The number of deaths on the highway — caused by reckless drivers who fail to show caution to their fellow drivers — would go to zero immediately.

  2. Suicides, depression, lack of education, abuses, addictions, speeding accidents are not growing exponentially, while covid yes. If we don’t stop covid, it will grow to an unsustainable level.
    What is really unbelievable is that there is still people do not understand it.

  3. Suicides, depression, lack of education, abuses, addictions, speeding accidents are not growing exponentially, while covid yes. If we don’t stop covid, it will grow to an unsustainable level.
    What is really unbelievable is that there is still people do not understand it.

  4. If all countries actually adopted this strategy in the beginning, we probably wouldn’t have to endure such a prolonged covid season. 2 months of harsh lockdown, or 2 years of “relaxed” lockdown?

  5. If all countries actually adopted this strategy in the beginning, we probably wouldn’t have to endure such a prolonged covid season. 2 months of harsh lockdown, or 2 years of “relaxed” lockdown?

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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.