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COVID-19 RULES

German Health Minister under fire for Covid ‘killer variant’ warning

German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) has been criticised after warning that a potential killer variant of Covid-19 could emerge in autumn.

German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD)
German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) holds a press conference outside a hospital in Husum, Schleswig-Holstein, on April 14th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Axel Heimken

Lauterbach had made the comments in an interview with Bild on Sunday, in which he had suggested that masks, social distancing and high stocks of Covid vaccines would be needed to see Germany through the cooler months.

“Various Omicron sub-variants are developing at the moment, which are a cause for concern for me. The intervals at which new variants replace the old ones are getting shorter and shorter, which means that we are less and less able to prepare for the mutations,” the SPD politician explained.  

Predicting that a potentially dangerous new variant could emerge in the coming months, Lauterbach said: “It is quite possible that we will get a highly contagious Omicron variant that is as deadly as Delta – that would be an absolute killer variant.”

Within hours, infectious disease experts were lining up to call for a more moderate tone from the Health Minister.

“A variant as contagious as Omicron and as dangerous as Delta is not impossible, but it is far from being a ‘killer variant’,” virologist Hendrik Streeck told Bild. “Germany has a high vaccination rate and quite a few recovered people, which amounts to a decent level of basic immunity.”

Also speaking to Bild, FDP health expert Christine Aschenberg-Dugnus said she did not think it “expedient to discuss the possibility of a more serious virus variant at this stage”.

Though it is scientifically proven that the virus mutates, “no one can predict today whether it will be a dangerous variant,” she said. 

Stefan Kluge, head of the Department of Intensive Care Medicine at the University Medical Centre Hamburg-Eppendorf, took a similar view.

“No expert can currently say for sure which variant we will get in the autumn,” Kluge told the Funke Media Group on Monday. “But we should be prepared for the possibility of another variant coming along that leads to a higher severity of illness than is currently the case with the Omicron variant.”

READ ALSO: Germany arrests Covid protesters for kidnap plot

To call a Covid variant a “killer variant” is inappropriate, Kluge said, adding that there were other infections for which the mortality rate is significantly higher than has been the case with Covid-19 so far.

“The Omicron variant currently leads to very few severe courses of illness,” he explained. “We currently have a mortality rate of less than 0.1 percent with Omicron, which is comparable to influenza.”

To improve basic protection for more vulnerable sections of the population, Kluge called for a vaccination drive and campaign targeting people over the age of 60 and further development of the vaccines. 

According to data released by the Robert Koch Institute on Monday, 76.1 percent of people in Germany have had two shots of the Covid vaccine, while 59.1 percent have also received a booster vaccination.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister to target undecided in new Covid jab campaign

New measures in autumn?

Speaking to Bild on Sunday, the Federal Health Minister suggested that the Infection Protection Act could be modified in the autumn when the pandemic situation could worsen. 

“That’s when case numbers are likely to rise and there’s a high possibility of new mutations or of higher infections with Omicron,” Lauterbach said.

At this point, regulations could be changed to include measures like masks in indoor spaces and potentially the resumption of entry rules such as 3G, 2G and 2G-plus in public venues.

A waiter wipes away outdated Covid rules at a restaurant in Wedel

A waiter wipes away outdated Covid rules at a restaurant in Wedel, Schleswig-Holstein. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Georg Wendt

As of April 2nd, the majority of states in Germany have adopted an amended version of the Infection Protection Act that removes almost all Covid rules and regulations.

Masks are currently only required on public transport and in hospitals, clinics and care homes and the ‘G’ rules have been entirely dropped everywhere apart from Hamburg and Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The streamlined Covid measures coming in force in Germany

The Health Ministry told Bild he expects new vaccines that protect against Omicron infections to be available in September.

“We already have vaccines (that protect) against the Delta variant,” Lauterbach said. “Our goal is to have as much vaccine as possible for every citizen, no matter which variant comes.”

Member comments

  1. I’ve never been a fan of this politician in particular. But between his screams of more vaccines, more restrictions. More face masks and killer variants is this guy fast loosing his credibility? If not what does he have to do to be given the boot?
    At what point can we begin to question his incentive to keep going this way? Also, weather or not there would be someone more reasonable to take his place.

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COVID-19 RULES

Bavaria signals end to compulsory masks on public transport

Bavaria's state premier Markus Söder (CSU) has announced plans for a "prompt" end to mandatory masks on buses and trains.

Bavaria signals end to compulsory masks on public transport

If infection levels and hospitalisations remain low, the end of the mask-wearing rule could come as soon as December or January.

“We are convinced that the mask requirement in public transport could also be phased out either in mid-December or early next year, if the numbers remain reasonably stable and there are no new mutations,” Söder explained on Monday, following a meeting with the CSU executive committee. 

A decision on when to end the measure would be made “promptly”, he added.

The CSU politician had said last week that the sinking infection rates meant that compulsory masks were no longer appropriate and that the mandate could be changed to a recommendation. 

No set date for change

The latest version of Bavaria’s Infection Protection Act – which lays out an obligation to wear masks on public transport as one of the few remaining Covid rules – is currently due to expire on December 9th.

State ministers could decide whether to let obligatory masks on buses and trains lapse on this date as early as next week, or they could decide to initially extend the legislation and set an alternative date for ending the rule.

Regardless of their decision, FFP2 masks will continue to be mandatory on long-distance public transport until at least April next year, when the nationwide Infection Protection Act is due to expire.

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

Speaking to Süddeutsche Zeitung on Monday after the meeting of the Council of Ministers, Florian Herrmann (CSU), head of the State Chancellery, confirmed that Covid-19 had been discussed in passing.

However, no decisions or discussions were made on how to proceed after the expiry of the regulation, he said.

According to Herrmann, the fact that Covid was no longer the “dominant topic” in the cabinet under “enormous tension” shows “that we are returning to normality” in a gradual transition from pandemic to endemic. 

As of Wednesday, the 7-day incidence of Covid infections per 100,000 people stood at 108 in Bavaria, down from 111 the previous day. However, experts have cast doubt on how meaningful the incidence is in light of the fact that fewer people are taking tests.

Nevertheless, the 133 hospital beds occupied by Covid patients in the Free State falls well below the 600 threshold for a ‘red alert’. With Omicron causing less severe courses of illness than previous variants, politicians have increasingly focussed on hospitalisation statistics to gauge the severity of the situation.

‘A risk-benefit trade-off’

Bavaria is the second federal state to announce plans to relax its mask-wearing rules in recent weeks.

On November 14th, the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein announced that it would be ending obligatory FFP2 masks on public transport and urged other states to do the same. From January 2023, masks on public transport will only be recommended rather than mandated for passengers on local buses and trains. 

However, the Federal Ministry of Health has urged states not to loosen their rules too quickly.

Given that infection rates are likely to spike again in winter, “there’s no basis for loosening restrictions”, said Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD).

Physicians are also split on whether an end to masks on public transport is appropriate.

READ ALSO: Will Germany get rid of masks on public transport?

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) speaks at the German Hospital Day in Düsseldorf on November 14th. Lauterbach is against the lifting of the mask-wearing rule. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roberto Pfeil

Christoph Spinner, a virologist at the University Hospital in Munich, told Süddeutsche Zeitung he believed it was time to put the decision on mask-wearing back into the hands of individuals.

“Why not? The incidences are low, the danger of Covid-19 has dropped significantly and mortality has also decreased,” he said. 

But the Bavarian General Practitioners’ Association spoke out against the move, arguing that – unlike a trip to a restaurant or cinema – people often have no choice but to travel on public transport.

“If the obligation to wear a mask in public transport is maintained, this will help to protect against a Covid infection on the way to work by bus or train – especially in view of the discontinuation of the obligation to isolate in the event of a Covid infection,” they explained.

Bavaria is one of four states to have recently ended mandatory isolation for people who test positive for Covid. Baden-Württemberg and Schleswig-Holstein both scrapped their isolation mandate last week, while Hesse removed its obligation on Tuesday. 

READ ALSO: Four German states call for end to mandatory Covid isolation

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