Germany must be prepared for Omicron variant, warns top virologist

High profile virologist Christian Drosten says he's concerned about the new Covid-19 variant - and that Germany needs to be "prepared for all possibilities".

People queue for a Covid-19 test in Berlin.
People queue for a Covid-19 test in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

The Omicron variant of Covid-19, which was first detected in South Africa, has also been found in Germany. 

It was detected in three travellers in Munich at the weekend. In Hesse another returning traveller from South Africa was also confirmed to have been infected with the new Covid variant, according to the Ministry of Social Affairs.

READ ALSO: Germany confirms two cases of new Covid variant

In the most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia, there are suspected Omicron cases in Essen and Düsseldorf.

The UK, Canada, Denmark, Belgium, the Czech Republic and Italy have also reported cases of the variant. In the Netherlands, 13 travellers were found to be infected with Omicron.

Researchers are frantically trying to understand how transmissible the new Covid variant is, as well as the severity of disease.

The head of virology at Berlin’s Charité hospital, Christian Drosten, said he was “quite concerned” about the new variant.

“I’m surprised to see so many mutations in this virus,” said Drosten in an interview with German broadcaster ZDF on Monday. However, he added that at this stage no one knows how these mutations affect day-to-day life.  

German virologist Christian Drosten in Cologne.
German virologist Christian Drosten in Cologne. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Rolf Vennenbernd

“There have been media reports of the disease leading to mild symptoms but I don’t think there’s much substance to that yet,” he said. “We’ve only seen about 1,000 cases and it still has to be observed. That means we really have to be prepared for all possibilities.

What we can say however is that infections have been mostly incurring in young people, often in those who have already had the disease and then get it for a second or third time.

“We really don’t know what we’re up against yet. But what we can say with certainty is that it’s better to be vaccinated and it’s even better to have had a booster vaccine.”

Drosten added that it’s better to “take it seriously now” as a precaution. 

The virologist, who advises the German government, went on to say that the next two to three weeks would determine whether vaccinations would have to be changed to deal with the variant.

An adaptation of the mRNA vaccines is possible, he said. “Technically, it will be relatively easy to do that. But we are talking about months here.”

The Omicron strain of Covid-19 was first reported in South Africa on Thursday, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) classified it as a variant “of concern”.

EU health authorities have said the new strain poses a “high to very high risk” to the continent.

Countries – including Germany and the UK – have brought in travel restrictions in a bid to contain the spread of the variant. 

It comes as Europe battles a drastic fourth Covid wave that has seen Germany experience the highest amount of daily cases ever. 

On Monday Germany reported 29,364 Covid infections in the last 24 hours, and 73 deaths. The number of infections is usually lower on Mondays due to reporting delays at the weekend. 

The 7-day incidence stood at 452.4 Covid infections per 100,000 people. 


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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.