Will Germany see a spike in Covid infections this summer?

Health experts are concerned that a Covid-19 wave could hit Germany in the summer months.

A face mask lies on the ground in Leipzig.
A face mask lies on the ground in Leipzig. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Sebastian Willnow

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) said a renewed increase of Covid infections in Germany may happen earlier than autumn, as health experts have previously been warning. 

READ ALSO: How Germany is preparing for a post-summer Covid wave

In its latest report, the RKI said the Omicron sub-variants – BA.4 and B.5 – will spread more strongly, “so that there may also be an overall increase in the number of infections and a renewed increase in infection pressure on vulnerable groups of people as early as summer”.

The RKI said seasonal effects – which usually slow down the virus – will likely not be able to compensate for the spread of these variants when there are few Covid restrictions in place. 

Germany has relaxed most of its Covid rules in recent months although some remain in place. For instance, masks are still mandatory on public transport, and people have to isolate for at least five days if they get Covid.

READ ALSO: Germany’s current Covid mask rules

The warning comes as the German nationwide incidence of infections rose on Friday to 318.7 Covid cases per 100,000 people from 276.9 the previous day.

Health authorities logged 77.878 Covid infections within the latest 24 hour period, and 106 deaths. However, experts say there are a high number of unreported cases in Germany.

“The share of the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants is currently showing the strongest growth,” the RKI said in its report.

As a result, these Covid subtypes – whose share is still currently at a low level – could account for the majority of infections in just a few weeks, said health experts.

According to the report, the more transmissible BA.5 variant was found in every tenth sample during investigations recently – meaning it is doubling week to week.

The proportion of BA.4 is reported to be 2.1 percent, which is also about double the previous figures. The figures are based on a random sample; not all positive cases are checked for variants.

According to experts, so-called ‘immunity escape’ plays a role in the advantage that BA.5 has over previous Omicron subtypes. This means that the viral genome has changed so that it can better escape antibodies of vaccinated and recovered people.

The encouraging news is that even though reports from Portugal have raised concerns about a possible increase in the severity of the disease, the RKI has so far seen no evidence of this.

The data does not suggest that infections with BA.4 or BA.5 cause more severe illness or proportionately more deaths than the BA.1 and BA.2 subtypes of Omicron which fuelled the past waves, the RKI wrote.

The Omicron BA.2 subtype was recently found in almost every positive sample included in the investigation. Now its share has dropped to 87.5 percent.

Meanwhile, the RKI said the nationwide 7-day incidence rose last week compared to the previous week for the first time since mid-March. Health experts spoke of an increase in the number of transmitted infections in the past week of about 50,000 cases compared to the previous week.

However, the situation in hospitals has not yet changed: the burden on the healthcare system continues to decline, according to the RKI. 

Earlier in the week, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach called the BA.5 type “not a particularly dangerous variant”.

However, he said that the Infection Protection Act, which expires on September 23rd this year, will have to be amended and extended to prepare for new and possibly more dangerous virus variants. 

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Germany could still be hit by winter Covid wave, health minister warns

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) has criticised states that have loosened their Covid restrictions in recent weeks, as he warned that Germany could be on the brink of another wave.

Germany could still be hit by winter Covid wave, health minister warns

Speaking on Bayerischer Rundfunk Thursday, Lauterbach said he expected Covid infection numbers to rise again over the next weeks.

With Germany “likely at the start of a new winter wave”, Lauterbach said he could not understand states that had started to loosen their existing rules. 

“It feels kind of like a bidding war to see which state can relax their rules first,” he said. “That’s just a little bit populist.” 

Pointing to the some 1,000 people who continue to die each week after contracting Covid, Lauterbach said the existing rules were there to protect people who could not fully protect themselves.

Earlier this week, Bavaria became the second federal state to announce plans to scrap mandatory masks on local public transport, with state premier Markus Söder saying he was “convinced” that the rule could be phased out in either December or January. 

READ ALSO: Bavaria signals end to compulsory masks on public transport

The northern state of Schleswig-Holstein had already made a similar announcement earlier this month, with the mask-wearing rule due to end in the new year.

Speaking on Bayerischer Rundfunk, Lauterbach dismissed changes to the current restrictions as “reckless” and stressed that the Federal Health Ministry didn’t support plans to relax the rules.

Four states have also taken a further step towards liberalisation in recent weeks by ending the obligation to self-isolate after testing positive for Covid.

Under the current Infection Protection Act, only masks on long-distance transport, in clinics, and in care facilities are mandated on a federal level, while states are allowed to set their own mask-wearing rules on local public transport and in other public spaces.

Pandemic ‘nearly over’ 

While a handful of states look to relax their measures, top virologist Christian Drosten, who sits on the government’s panel of Covid experts, has signaled that the pandemic could soon be drawing to an end.

According to Drosten, the pattern of waves earlier this year show that increasingly small factors are enough to end a slew of infections. At the end of October, for example, a few weeks of summery weather broke the autumn wave entirely.

“The situation for the virus is becoming precarious,” Drosten told Die Zeit. “That is good. It is no longer the case that the virus could completely turn the game around with a few mutations.” 

The Berlin-based virologist said he didn’t expect a more dangerous or deadly mutation of the virus to emerge in the coming months. 

Christian Drosten and Karl Lauterbach

Christian Drosten, director of the Institute of Virology and Charite Berlin, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach and RKI chief Lothar Wieler speak at a press conference in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

Nevertheless, Drosten warned that the winter could be “difficult” if the highly infectious BQ.1.1 subtype became the dominant variant.

Epidemiologist Klaus Stöhr agreed with Drosten’s assessment, telling Bild that the signs were pointing towards a transition from the pandemic to the endemic phase, largely due to the levels of immunity among the population.

New variants and mutations were bound to appear, he said. 

“But that a variant appears that changes the clinical picture enormously or even worsens it and/or bypasses the acquired immune protection – we don’t see that happening!”

READ ALSO: German opposition leader calls for official end to pandemic next year

Uptick in infections

After falling steadily for a number of weeks, the 7-day incidence of Covid infections per 100,000 stood at 187 on Thursday, up from 178 the previous day.

This represents a slight drop from the previous week’s value of 199 and a significant decline compared to last month’s figure of 584.

However, experts say the incidence has become far less meaningful in recent weeks in light of the massive drop-off in testing – and particularly the negligible number of people who are taking PCR tests. 

According to the latest report from the Robert Koch Institute, 1,566 people were hospitalised with Covid within 24 hours, while 164 people died after contracting the virus.