Summer Covid wave has arrived in Germany, says Health Minister

German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach has urged risk groups to get a second booster vaccination against Covid-19 as the number of infections spike.

People enjoy the sunshine in Munich's English Garden. Experts are warning of a summer Covid wave.
People enjoy the sunshine in Munich's English Garden. Experts are warning of a summer Covid wave. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Sven Hoppe

“The predicted summer wave has unfortunately become reality,” Lauterbach told the Rheinische Post on Wednesday. “This also means little relief for the next few weeks.”

Lauterbach said the seasonal effect that usually sees Covid infections drop during the summer months was already fizzling out.  

One reason for this is that the circulating subtype of the Omicron variant of Covid is very transmissible. Plus, almost all Covid measures have been dropped in Germany meaning that people are mixing a lot more than other Covid years, Lauterbach said.

“I therefore strongly recommend that older people and those who have previously been ill get vaccinated again,” he said. This may not prevent an infection, but it will prevent severe courses of the illness, he added.

READ ALSO: Will Germany see a spike in Covid infections this summer?

According to the Health Ministry, 5.2 million people in Germany have received a second booster jab so far – 6.3 percent of the population.

It comes as infections are rising steeply. According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the nationwide 7-day incidence on Wednesday morning was 472.4 infections per 100,000 people, almost twice as high as a week ago. 

However, the incidence does not provide a complete picture of the infection situation. Experts have believed for some time that there is a high number of cases going unrecorded in Germany.

Lauterbach also called on people in Germany to voluntarily wear masks when in indoor public spaces, even though many mandatory mask requirements have been dropped. Wearing masks indoors and getting a fourth jab are “the best antidotes” against the virus, he said on Twitter.

READ ALSO: Germany’s current Covid mask rules

Omicron subtype BA.5 spreads rapidly

The spread of the Omicron subtype BA.5 is fuelling the increase in Covid cases.

Based on the speed at which it has spread so far, BA.5 is expected to account for 40 to 50 percent of Covid infections in Germany this week, said Michael Müller, chairman of the Association of Accredited Laboratories in Medicine (ALM).

He expects the virus to continue spreading until around mid-July and the number of infections to remain high as a result. In countries like Portugal, the subtype has already caused a new wave.

Epidemiologist Timo Ulrichs from the Akkon University of Human Sciences in Berlin said: “The BA.5 sub-variant is even more infectious than all previous variants, so it can spread even under the adverse conditions for the virus in summer.”

Moreover, according to research, BA.5 can evade the immune system even if it has already had contact with Omicron variants, Ulrichs warns.

Data does not suggest, however, that BA.5 infections cause more severe illness than other Omicron subtypes, although vulnerable groups face higher risks. 

Dirk Heinrich, chairman of the Virchowbund, which represents doctors, also called for people to get vaccinated.

“Those who have not yet been vaccinated should get vaccinated now to avoid serious illness,” Heinrich told the Rheinische Post.

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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.