A healthcare worker cares for a Covid-19 patient in the ICU ward at the Robert Bosch Hospital in Stuttgart, Germany, on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021.
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It’s no secret that Germany has been seeing a sharp rise in coronavirus cases in recent weeks but one leading health expert in the country is now warning of “exponential growth” in the number of infections.
This comes at a time when the country has suspended the use of the AstraZeneca-University of Oxford coronavirus vaccine.
Epidemiologist Dirk Brockmann, an expert at the Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases, said that a recent loosening of Covid restrictions has allowed a more virulent variant of the virus, first discovered in the U.K. late last year, to spread rapidly.
“We are exactly on the flank of the third wave. That can no longer be disputed. And, at this point, we have eased the restrictions and that is speeding up the exponential growth,” Brockmann told German broadcaster ARD on Tuesday.
“It has been totally irrational to loosen up here. It’s just fueling this exponential growth,” he said.
Germany was lauded for its initial response to the pandemic, managing to keep cases lower by an effective track and tracing regime, and keeping the death rate lower thanks to its modern hospital infrastructure.
But in recent months, over winter and faced with new more virulent variants of the virus, it has appeared to struggle to contain infections. The EU’s sluggish vaccine rollout has not helped matters, with the bloc facing criticism for its slower procurement and deployment of vaccines. Germany’s vaccination rollout has faced several hurdles, frustrating officials and health experts in the country.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and state leaders agreed earlier this month to a gradual easing of restrictions along with an “emergency brake” that would allow the authorities to reverse course if the number of infections rises above 100 per 100,000 on three consecutive days.
The emergency brake, the government said, had been envisaged “in the event that we experience exponential growth” of cases. Merkel and regional leaders are expected to review the measures on March 22 where they will decide whether to proceed to the next step of reopening, or not.
The number of cases per 100,000 reported on Tuesday was 83.7, up from 68 a week ago, and the RKI has said that metric could reach 200 by the middle of next month, Reuters noted in a report Tuesday.
Germany’s lockdown is currently due to run to at least March 28 but some restrictions have already been eased, with schools, daycare and hairdressers reopening at the start of the month.
Then bookstores and florists were allowed to reopen and some museums too a week ago. Regional rules can vary, however, with states granted discretion over how and when they reopen given case rates.
On March 22, Germany’s five-point plan to reopen had envisaged that some outdoor dining venues, theaters, and cinemas could reopen. But the rising number of infections could derail that timetable.
The top epidemiologist’s comments come as Germany, and a handful of other European countries, have decided to suspend use of the coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford with concerns over reports of blood clots in a handful of vaccinated people.
The move has baffled experts around the world, however, with the World Health Organization and European Medicines Agency (which are both carrying out a safety review of the vaccine) both insisting that all available evidence shows the vaccine is safe and effective and does not prompt a higher risk of blood clots, which are common in the general population.
The vaccine maker itself has highlighted that the data shows that the number of blood clots in the vaccinated population has actually been lower than what might have been expected to occur naturally.
The WHO and EMA, which is due to publish the findings of its safety review Thursday, say that the benefits of the vaccine outweigh the risks and that countries should not pause their immunization programs. Nonetheless, more than a dozen European countries have suspended its use. This could lead to a dangerous increase in infections, and deaths, experts say.
“Latest figures suggest 40 fatal cases for every 20 million vaccinated with Astra-Zeneca jabs. Each case taken individually is always terrible, but this, as a percentage, is statistically insignificant. Instead, vaccination delays cost Europe about 2000 more deaths per day, and tens of billions of euros in lockdowns, closed businesses,” Guido Cozzi, professor of macroeconomics at the University of St. Gallen, said in a note Tuesday.
Even if public health bodies like the WHO and EMA reiterate on Thursday that the vaccine is safe, experts fear that more damage has already been done to the vaccine’s reputation.
AstraZeneca’s vaccine has already faced several hurdles, ranging from question marks over trial methodology and data, misplaced hesitation over the vaccine’s efficacy in the over-65s, and disputes over delays of supplies to the EU. Real world data shows the vaccine is extremely effective at preventing severe Covid cases, hospitalizations and deaths in adults.