Germany warns of ‘exponential’ coronavirus spread

Coronavirus cases in Germany are rising at a "very clearly exponential rate", a top public health institute said Friday, as the EU's biggest country debated tightening a shutdown.

Germany warns of 'exponential' coronavirus spread
The city of 'Salzgitter' in Lower Saxony has applied the emergency brakes following a Covid-19 7-day incidence rate of more than 200.

The vice president of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases, Lars Schaade, told reporters that highly contagious virus variants were getting the upper hand, wiping out progress seen last month in containing the pandemic.

“It is very possible that we will have a similar situation over Easter to the one we had before Christmas, with very high case numbers, many severe cases and deaths, and hospitals that are overwhelmed”.

The RKI on Friday reported 17,482 new infections in the previous 24 hours and 226 deaths in Germany, with the seven-day incidence rate soaring to 96 per 100,000 people despite a months-long shutdown of large swathes of public life.

German leaders agreed earlier this month to impose new restrictions in regions where the seven-day incidence rate surpassed 100.

The country’s second city of Hamburg said it would pull the “emergency brake” from Saturday after exceeding the 100-mark three days in a row. Brandenburg, the state surrounding Berlin, also crossed the benchmark on Friday.

READ ALSO: Hamburg moves back into hard shutdown as third coronavirus wave gains momentum

“We are in the third wave of the pandemic, the numbers are rising, the percentage of virus mutations is high,” Health Minister Jens Spahn told the news conference.

Spahn, who this week faced growing calls to resign amid frustration with the government’s pandemic management, called on Germans to refrain from spring break travel to help curb infections.

The grim news came as Germany resumed administering AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 jabs after the European regulator EMA assessed it was “safe and effective” to use.

Spahn making a statement on Thursday about AstraZeneca’s use. Photo: DPA

‘Short, sharp’ restrictions

Amid a widely criticised sluggish vaccination campaign, Germany decided on Monday, along with most EU governments, to suspend use of the vaccine for the EMA to examine a handful of cases of cerebral vein thrombosis that emerged.

Doctors will now have to inform patients about the possible blood clotting risk before giving them the jabs.

Critics had complained that the decision to halt use of AstraZeneca’s vaccine over the last days only served to fuel mistrust over the jabs and further delay Germany’s inoculation programme.

By Thursday, only 3.8 percent of the German population was reported fully immunised.

Spahn said the resumption of the AstraZeneca vaccinations combined with expected new arrivals of jabs from other manufacturers in April should speed up the German campaign.

But he admitted that “an honest analysis of the situation shows that there aren’t enough vaccines in Europe to stop the third wave with vaccination alone”.

He said it would take several weeks before even those in the highest risk groups were fully inoculated and warned that the country should brace for an extension of current restrictions.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will meet with the country’s 16 state leaders on Monday to set new shutdown rules based on the latest pandemic developments.

Karl Lauterbach, a public health expert from the Social Democrats, junior partners in the government, said there was for now no alternative to keeping restaurants, most shops and entertainment venues closed.

“You can look at it any way you want, we have to go back to lockdown,” he said, calling for “short, sharp” restrictions.

“The sooner we react, the shorter the lockdown will need to be.”

READ ALSO: Germany to use AstraZeneca vaccine from Friday

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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.