End is in sight for pandemic in Germany, says top virologist

High profile virologist Christian Drosten says Germany should be able to declare the end of the pandemic this year, but that masks will still likely be needed next winter.

A face mask on the ground near Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
A face mask on the ground near Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christophe Gateau

During an interview with the Tagesspiegel on Sunday, Drosten discussed the end of the pandemic, Germany and other countries’ political failures and possible vaccines being administered through the nose.

When asked if Germany could soon declare the pandemic over and enter the endemic phase, Drosten said: “We are in that process now. But because of the high proportion of older people in the population, we have to do this (build immunity) in Germany through vaccination. If not, far too many people would die through natural infections.

“We have already gone a long way along this path through vaccination. We must now complete this process so that we can reach the endemic phase in the course of 2022 and declare the pandemic state to be over.”

Drosten said some countries are already near the end of the pandemic, such as South Africa and India, because there have been lots more infections in the population “but it’s also at the price of many deaths”, he added.

READ ALSO: ‘Difficult weeks ahead,’ warns German Health Minister on Omicron

‘Masks likely needed next winter’

The Berlin Charité Hospital virologist, who regularly advises the government, gave his predictions on what will happen in 2022. 

“Next winter, I expect another strong increase in incidence,” he said. “And we will probably have to wear masks again indoors, because the protection against transmission will drop again a little, and the vulnerable in the population will have to be protected, especially the elderly who are vaccinated and the unvaccinated of all ages.

Virologist Christian Drosten speaks at a press conference in Berlin.

Virologist Christian Drosten speaks at a press conference in Berlin on January 14th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

“However, really significant restrictions will probably no longer be necessary. We will just have to continue to take into account the part of the population that is at risk.

“So it will not yet be like it is now in a normal influenza season. Because the population immunity against influenza is not only based on vaccination, but on several infections that an adult has usually already had in his or her lifetime. We are simply not there yet with Sars-Cov-2.”

Drosten said that everyone will get the virus in the long run, but that it shouldn’t spread unchecked throughout the population. 

“The virus has to spread, but it has to do so on the basis of a vaccination protection that is anchored in the general population,” he said.

When asked if Omicron having a reduced disease severity could be a chance to enter the endemic phase he said: “It would be a chance now, assuming broad immunity.”

He didn’t, however, rule out the possibility that a new variant could emerge in future that may escape immunity like Omicron, but have an increased disease severity like Delta. 

Yet he said if this happened, it would “no longer be a catastrophe” because population immunity should continue to build. 

“But maintaining population immunity is not the same as building up immunity,” he added. “In our ageing society, we have to build up immunity through vaccinations, while the virus has to maintain it. Supported, of course, by booster vaccinations, just like with influenza.”

On the question of a general vaccine mandate, on which the German Bundestag will vote on in the coming weeks, Drosten said the controversial question was “for the politicians to decide”. 

“As a virologist, I can only emphasise again and again how important it is that we close the vaccination gap as completely as possible, especially in the age groups that are at risk,” he added.

“It will not be possible to achieve transmission protection of those at risk via population immunity, i.e. what is commonly called “herd immunity”: a state in which the virus does not spread further, so that even those parts of the population who are not vaccinated are protected. That will not be achievable with this virus.”

READ ALSO: German MPs to vote on general vaccine mandate in March

Germany has ‘handled pandemic well but mistakes made’

When asked about the biggest political mistakes in Germany and elsewhere in the pandemic, Drosten said that the UK “made the big mistake in the first wave of not listening to science and doing the lockdown too late. Two weeks would have made a huge difference then, would have saved tens of thousands of lives”.

“That was not the case in Germany,” he said, but added that an error was made in Germany in November 2020 with the “very half-hearted approach taken at the time”.

“No consistent action was taken and it was accepted for several weeks that the infection rates remained constantly high,” he said.

Drosten said the second serious error for Germany was in autumn 2021 “when it was misjudged that a new wave was coming – the Delta wave – and that something had to be done about it”.

“It was communicated that all we had to do now was protect old people’s homes, and that there would be no winter wave because we had vaccinated – whereas science had warned emphatically against it, really long enough beforehand,” he said. 

However, he said Germany has handled the pandemic fairly well overall, adding that few countries have had “so few deaths for a comparable population size, demographic and socio-economic structure”.

“Compare this to the frequently cited example of Sweden – there were many deaths and immense economic damage,” said Drosten. “And even in autumn 2020, the government there admitted that its approach had failed. And it would have failed even more if the population there hadn’t behaved in such an educated, cooperative, self-motivated, self-responsible and cohesive way.”

OPINION: The pandemic has revealed Germany’s deep obsession with rules and compliance

What does the future hold?

When it comes to research, Drosten said the world needs a so-called “live vaccine”, with an “attenuated virus or a modern variant of it”. He said it would be “administered in the nose to trigger mucosal immunity”.

“That would be a much better protection against transmission, it would be the next milestone,” he said. 

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Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

The mandatory EU-wide mask requirement for air travel is set to be dropped from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still require passengers to wear masks on some or all flights

Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

Europe-wide facemask rules on flights are set to be ditched as early as next week in light of new recommendations from health and air safety experts.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) dropped recommendations for mandatory mask-wearing in airports and during flights in updated Covid-19 safety measures for travel issued on Wednesday, May 11th.

The new rules are expected to be rolled out from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still continue to require the wearing of masks on some or all of flights. And the updated health safety measures still say that wearing a face mask remains one of the best ways to protect against the transmission of the virus.

The joint EASA/ECDC statement reminded travellers that masks may still be required on flights to destinations in certain countries that still require the wearing of masks on public transport and in transport hubs.

It also recommends that vulnerable passengers should continue to wear a face mask regardless of the rules, ideally an FFP2/N95/KN95 type mask which offers a higher level of protection than a standard surgical mask.

“From next week, face masks will no longer need to be mandatory in air travel in all cases, broadly aligning with the changing requirements of national authorities across Europe for public transport,” EASA executive director Patrick Ky said in the statement. 

“For passengers and air crews, this is a big step forward in the normalisation of air travel. Passengers should however behave responsibly and respect the choices of others around them. And a passenger who is coughing and sneezing should strongly consider wearing a face mask, for the reassurance of those seated nearby.”  

ECDC director Andrea Ammon added: “The development and continuous updates to the Aviation Health Safety Protocol in light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic have given travellers and aviation personnel better knowledge of the risks of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and its variants. 

“While risks do remain, we have seen that non-pharmaceutical interventions and vaccines have allowed our lives to begin to return to normal. 

“While mandatory mask-wearing in all situations is no longer recommended, it is important to be mindful that together with physical distancing and good hand hygiene it is one of the best methods of reducing transmission. 

“The rules and requirements of departure and destination states should be respected and applied consistently, and travel operators should take care to inform passengers of any required measures in a timely manner.”