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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Germany should prepare for Covid wave in autumn, ministers warn

German health ministers say that tougher Covid restrictions should come back into force if a serious wave emerges in autumn.

Germany should prepare for Covid wave in autumn, ministers warn

Following a video meeting on Monday, the health ministers of Germany’s 16 states said tougher restrictions should be imposed again if they are needed. 

“The corona pandemic is not over yet – we must not be deceived by the current declining incidences,” said Saxony-Anhalt’s health minister Petra Grimm-Benne, of the Social Democrats, who currently chairs the Conference of Health Ministers (GMK).

According to the GMK, new virus variants are expected to appear in autumn and winter. Over the weekend, federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) also warned that the more dangerous Delta variant could return to Germany. “That is why the federal Ministry of Health should draw up a master plan to combat the corona pandemic as soon as possible and coordinate it with the states,” Grimm-Benne said.

Preparations should also include an amendment of the Infection Protection Act, ministers urged. They want to see the states given powers to react to the infection situation in autumn and winter. They called on the government to initiate the legislative process in a timely manner, and get the states actively involved.

The current Infection Protection Act expires on September 23rd this year. Germany has loosened much of its Covid restrictions in the last months, however, face masks are still compulsory on public transport as well as on planes. 

READ ALSO: Do people in Germany still have to wear Covid masks on planes?

The health ministers said that from autumn onwards, it should be possible for states to make masks compulsory indoors if the regional infection situation calls for it. Previously, wearing a Covid mask was obligatory in Germany when shopping and in restaurants and bars when not sitting at a table. 

Furthermore, the so-called 3G rule for accessing some venues and facilities – where people have to present proof of vaccination, recovery, or a negative test – should be implemented again if needed, as well as other infection protection rules, the ministers said. 

Bavaria’s health minister Klaus Holetschek, of the CSU, welcomed the ministers’ unanimous call for a revision of the Infection Protection Act. “The states must be able to take all necessary infection protection measures quickly, effectively, and with legal certainty,” he said.

North Rhine-Westphalia’s health minister Karl-Josef Laumann (CDU) warned that no one should “lull themselves into a false sense of security”.

“We must now prepare for the colder season and use the time to be able to answer important questions about the immunity of the population or the mechanisms of infection chains,” he said.

On Tuesday, Germany reported 86,253 Covid infections within the latest 24 hour period, as well as 215 Covid-related deaths. The 7-day incidence stood at 437.6 infections per 100,000 people. However, experts believe there could be twice as many infections because lots of cases go unreported. 

READ ALSO: Five things to know about the Covid pandemic in Germany right now