According to new data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the proportion of the British coronavirus variant (B.1.1.7) in positive test samples examined in Germany rose from just under six percent to more than 22 per cent in two weeks.
The RKI and laboratories have analysed more than 23,000 positive PCR tests and sequenced the samples in recent weeks in a bid to find out how Covid variants are spreading.
During a press conference in Berlin on Wednesday, Spahn warned that B.1.1.7, which is more contagious than earlier strains of the virus, will become the dominant variant in Germany.
“The mutation that was first discovered in the UK is particularly worrying… We have to expect that it will now become the dominant variant here,” said Spahn.
He added that the proportion of cases with the variant is “doubling every week”.
The rise comes despite Germany partially closing its borders in an attempt to stem the spread of the new variants.
Europe's biggest economy has been filtering crossings from Austria's Tyrol region and the Czech Republic since Sunday, prompting criticism from the EU.
The South African variant is being detected much less frequently in positive test samples, with a share of around 1.5 per cent.
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The Health Minister said it was “encouraging” that the infection figures were falling in Germany despite the spread of the variant. This shows that Covid-19 restrictions are working, Spahn stressed.
“We are in one of the most difficult phases of this pandemic for Germany and Europe,” he added.
On Wednesday Germany logged 7,556 new cases within 24 hours and 560 deaths. The number of cases per 100,000 residents in seven days stood at 57.
More testing Germany for pandemic fight
Spahn announced on Tuesday that free rapid antigen Covid-19 tests will be offered to everyone starting in March.
He said these were an “important tool” in the fight against the pandemic, but no substitute for distance and hygiene rules.
So far, antigen tests have been used mainly for prevention of outbreaks in care home facilities, but recently the strategy has been extended to schools and daycare centres.
It is hoped the availability of more rapid tests in pharmacies and doctors' surgeries, along with self-administered tests, can help Germany return to some kind of normal life as it emerges from months of shutdown.
The Health Minister said investment in testing and vaccinations made sense compared to the cost of lockdowns.
The testing measures are to be paid for by the federal government.
When asked about the number of tests, Spahn explained that rapid tests were sufficiently available, but that he could not guarantee they would always be available at any place and time.
Meanwhile, the first 'at home test kits' should be available at the beginning of March after approval by the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices, Spahn said.
However, Spahn said PCR tests, which involve samples being sent to a lab, “remain the gold standard”.
He urged everyone who has Covid-19 symptoms such as cough or fever to make an appointment with their doctor to ask for a PCR test.
According to recommendation of the Robert Koch Institute, a positive result on a rapid antigen test should be confirmed by a PCR test, as antigen tests are not considered as reliable as PCR.