‘Faster than the virus’: New WHO pandemic data hub opens in Berlin

The World Health Organization on Wednesday launched a global data hub in Berlin to analyse information on emerging pandemic threats, filling the gaps exposed by Covid-19.

'Faster than the virus': New WHO pandemic data hub opens in Berlin
Angela Merkel and WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus open the centre. Photo: dpa/POOL AP | Michael Sohn

The WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence was inaugurated in the German capital by Chancellor Angela Merkel and WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who said it would fill “a gap in the world’s defences”.

“The Covid-19 pandemic is the defining crisis of our time it has taught the world many painful lessons. One of the most clear is the need for new powerful systems and tools for global surveillance to collect, analyse and disseminate data on outbreaks,” Ghebreyesus said.

“Viruses move fast but data can move even faster. With the right information, countries and communities can stay ahead of emerging risks and save lives,” he said.

The data hub, which has received initial funding from Germany, is set to bring together experts from various disciplines in Berlin to analyse data quickly in order to predict, prevent, detect, prepare for and respond to risks worldwide.

The hub will try to get ahead of the game, looking for early warning signs that go beyond current systems that monitor publicly available information for emerging outbreaks.

The first head of the centre will be Chikwe Ihekweazu, currently director of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control.

Merkel said she hoped the new hub would help the world to be “better prepared for future epidemics and pandemics”, stressing that its findings would be shared with other countries.

“The pandemic has shown how much we can achieve if we really join forces. Experts all over the world have increased their knowledge at a really impressive speed and have also shared it again and again,” she said.

A team of international experts went to Wuhan earlier this year and produced a report with their Chinese counterparts that drew no firm conclusions on the origins of the virus.

Instead it ranked four hypotheses, deeming a jump from bats to human via an intermediate animal the most probable scenario, while a lab leak was seen as “extremely unlikely”.

But the investigation faced criticism for lacking transparency and access, and for not evaluating the lab-leak theory more thoroughly.

The experts’ report suggested the outbreak could have started as far back as September 2019, long before it was first detected in December 2019 in Wuhan.

“Despite decades of investment, Covid-19 has revealed the great gaps that exist in the world’s ability to forecast, detect, assess and respond to outbreaks that threaten people worldwide,” Michael Ryan, head of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, said in a statement.

SEE ALSO: Germans ‘feel least free’ of all Europeans during pandemic

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Munich sees sharp rise in Covid cases after Oktoberfest

Since the start of Germany’s Oktoberfest, the incidence of Covid infections in Munich has risen sharply. Though a connection with the festival can’t yet be proven, it seems likely.

Munich sees sharp rise in Covid cases after Oktoberfest

Two weeks after the start of Oktoberfest, the Covid numbers in Munich have more than tripled.

On Sunday, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) reported an incidence of 768.7 for the city of Munich, though updated figures for the end of the festival are not expected until later in the week. Usually, on weekends and public holidays, there is a delay in reports.

In the entire state of Bavaria, the incidence value on Sunday was 692.5.

According to Munich’s public health officer, Beatrix Zurek, bed occupancy in Munich hospitals has also increased. Two weeks ago, 200 beds in Munich were occupied by Covid patients, whereas there are now around 350.

Though a relationship between the sharp rise in infections with Oktoberfest, which ended on Monday, can’t be proven at the moment, it seems very likely, according to experts. A significant increase in Covid incidences has also been shown at other public festivals – about one and a half weeks after the start. 

READ ALSO: Germany’s famed Oktoberfest opens after two-year pandemic hiatus

After a two-year break due to the pandemic, around 5.7 million visitors came to this year’s Wiesn according to the festival management – around 600,000 fewer than at the last Oktoberfest before the pandemic in 2019, when there were 6.3 million.

Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) took to Twitter to comment on the rise in incidence in Munich during the Oktoberfest. “This would not have been necessary if self-tests had been taken before admission,” he said.

“Compared to the price of a measure of beer, €2-3 (for tests) wouldn’t have mattered,” he said.

Even before the start of the Wiesn, he had spoken out in favour of people taking voluntary self-tests. Lauterbach stressed that now is the time for special measures against Covid.

“The development shows what will happen if the states wait too long with the mask obligation in indoor areas,” he added.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: Germany’s new Covid-19 rules from October

In neighbouring counties, where many Oktoberfest visitors came from, the number of Covid cases has also risen noticeably.  Beatrix Zurek said that it is unclear, however, how much of a role Oktoberfest played in these figures, as people are currently much more active socially overall, with concerts and other events also taking place throughout the state.

Christoph Spinner, an infections specialist at Munich’s Klinikum, has urged people not to be alarmed by the rising numbers.

“We had expected rising incidences here. We knew that there could be a doubling, tripling, even quadrupling,” he said.

He said that this is no cause for concern, as many people have been vaccinated or have also recovered from previous Covid infections, so any new infections are therefore usually mild.

The virologist advises people over 60 or with pre-existing conditions to get a second booster vaccination, but otherwise said people shouldn’t be alarmed by the rising incidences.