Viola priesemann on corona mutations: a warning despite better numbers

Before the corona summit, calls for looser rules are getting louder. Physicist Viola Priesemann urges patience.

A little longer: Infection figures must continue to come down, says Viola Priesemann Photo: Hauke-Christian Dittrich/dpa

50 reported infections with the coronavirus per 100,000 people within a week – this seven-day incidence had been cited by politicians themselves as a rule of thumb to think about easing. Germany is now approaching this figure: while it was just under 200 before Christmas, it was only 73 on Tuesday. When the chancellor and the minister presidents of the federal states meet again on Wednesday at the federal-state summit to decide on further measures, expectations are correspondingly high that schools and stores will be able to reopen quickly after almost two months of closure.

But for the decision-makers, another problem has been added. In the meantime, it has become clear that an even more contagious variant is also spreading in Germany. At the end of January, it accounted for about 7 percent of all infections, according to the RKI, and much higher numbers were measured in southern Germany last week. Pushing the numbers to 50 in order to be able to relax is therefore by no means enough, warn scientists, including physicist Viola Priesemann of the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization in Gottingen.

Like her colleagues at other research institutes, she appeals for patience. "It would be better to be very careful. The case numbers of the new variant are increasing and are now at 30 percent in some regions." Soon, this increase will then also be seen in the total number of cases, warns Priesemann in an interview with the taz. "If you relax too early and too quickly, the success is soon wasted.

The scientist can understand the impatience of many citizens. In fact, according to her calculations, only a small part of the population in Germany has been infected. "From a statistical point of view, only about 3 out of 100 acquaintances from one’s own environment were positive," Priesemann calculates. And of those infected, less than 3 percent die. The probability for each* German citizen to know someone in his or her immediate environment who has died from Covid-19 is therefore low, he said.

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"And we’re killing the economy for this?" is a question Priesemann is also frequently asked. Her answer: "That still doesn’t mean that many people wouldn’t suffer and die from it if we just let the virus pass."

Without countermeasures, a large portion of the population would become infected with the coronavirus, the physicist says. That’s because among 50- to 75-year-olds, 1 to 4 percent of patients* – 250,000 to 1 million people – would eventually need a bed in intensive care units without vaccination. "No healthcare system would be able to sustain that," Priesemann says. "That’s why we need to continue to curb it."

But from her perspective, at what point would relaxations be possible? In recent weeks, prime ministers and even parts of the federal government have given the impression that as soon as the incidence falls below the threshold of 50, things can be relaxed.

However, the 50 mark was defined in the summer as a warning value above which countermeasures would absolutely have to be taken. This value was the result of horse-trading. Some federal states had therefore already set a value of 35 as the level above which urgent action would have to be taken.

According to Priesemann, where the upper limit of contact tracing lies depends on how much contact people have had. The Association of Cities says contact tracing is also possible above a value of 50. Priesemann is skeptical. "During the lockdown, health departments might be able to do it. But the more contact opportunities you allow back in, the more costly contact tracking becomes accordingly," she said of the physicist. "We know from the fall that that tipping point was around . That’s why that should be our target."

Possibilities still exist, she believes. At present, Germany is at best in a "three-quarter lockdown," says the scientist. There is still room to maneuver, especially in the labor market, without slowing down the economy, she adds. "Many neighboring countries and counties show that it is possible to rapidly reduce the caseload and get well below 50."