German public health authority warns of Omicron subtype risk

As Germany plans its phased reopening of public life, the Robert Koch Insitute (RKI) has warned that a resurgence of infections - partly due to a subtype of Omicron - cannot be ruled out.

Covid-19 laboratory
A laboratory worker in Hamlin, Lower Saxony, works with Covid-19 testing samples. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Julian Stratenschulte

Writing in its weekly report, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) said that the wave appeared to have peaked but noted that infection rates remained high in the population. 

The proportion of positive tests remained high, it said, with around one in two tests confirming an infection last week. The RKI also estimates that around 1.4 to 2.3 million people in Germany fell ill with acute respiratory symptoms caused by Covid-19 last week, resulting in around 380,000 Covid-related visits to doctors.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: What you need to know about Germany’s Covid reopening plan

As analyses of virus variants show, a worrying subtype of Omicron known as BA.2 is spreading continuously in Germany. According to the latest available data for the week ending February 13th, the BA.2 accounted for just under 24 percent of positive samples, according to the report. In the preceding weeks, the share of the subtype has grown from five to 16 percent. Since BA.2 is believed to be even more infectious than the current dominant subtype (BA.1) in Germany, experts expect this positive trend to continue. 

Referencing developments in neighbouring Denmark, a team at Berlin Technical University warned that Germany could see a resurgence in infections at the end of February because of the BA.2 subtype.

Due to the easier transmissibility of BA.2, “a significantly slower decrease or renewed rise in the number of cases cannot be ruled out”, the RKI said. The further development also depends strongly on the impact of increased social contact as Germany eases its Covid restrictions. 

So far in the Omicron wave, the sub-variant BA.1 has dominated. Its share is declining in the RKI evaluations and currently stands at 75 percent.

“In populations with high immunity due to vaccinations or infections, no differences in the severity of the illnesses between BA.1 and BA.2 were found,” the weekly report states.

READ ALSO: Health Minister urges German states not to relax Covid rules too quickly

Demographic changes

In addition, the report indicates that Omicron is increasingly reaching older people, who are more vulnerable to severe courses of illness.

“While seven-day incidences decreased in all age groups up to 69 years, there was a further increase in those aged 70 years and older last week,” it said. There are also increasing outbreaks in old people’s homes and nursing homes. However, the level of outbreaks this winter is significantly lower than last winter.

At schools, on the other hand, outbreak reports have risen to peak levels since the beginning of the pandemic in the wake of the Omicron wave. The maximum value was reached in the third week of January, with 1,089 outbreaks reported so far. Among children and adolescents aged 5 to 14, the number of recorded infections is still by far the highest among all age groups.

“The high number of outbreaks may be related to the Omicron variant that has been circulating dominantly since 2022, the temporarily expanded testing activities and varying effectiveness of the hygiene concepts in schools,” the RKI explained. 

On Friday, the RKI reported a 7-day incidence of Covid infections of 1,259.5 per 100,000 people – down from 1,265 the previous day and 1,371.7 the previous week. 

Local authorities in Germany reported 210,743 new Covid infections and 226 deaths within the last 24-hour period. 

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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.