The new variants of the coronavirus are even more dangerous than those known so far. Researchers and politicians fear a sharp increase in the number of infections, with dramatic consequences like those seen in Britain. Can Germany still stop the new killers?
The student didn’t really stand out among the nearly 700 cases of the coronavirus recorded by the public health department in Berlin’s Steglitz-Zehlendorf district during the week before Christmas. The young woman was home for the holidays to visit her family, having traveled back to Germany from the university where she is studying in the United Kingdom. It appeared to be an everyday case of the coronavirus in the affluent southern part of Berlin.
Indeed, it wasn’t all that surprising she had caught the virus, given that infection numbers were skyrocketing in Britain at that point.
But the student also infected her entire family, five people, which is pretty uncommon.
Just as her infection was discovered, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had begun sounding the alarm: B.1.1.7, the new and far more contagious variant of the virus, was spreading in southeast England, he warned. The response came quickly: Flights to and from Britain were cancelled and the Eurotunnel was closed to traffic. By then, though, the mutated virus had long since begun spreading across Europe.
It was by coincidence that an employee at the Steglitz-Zehlendorf public health department had experienced the ebola pandemic in West Africa and had also earned a doctorate in virology. Shortly before Christmas, she made a call to the laboratory at the Robert Koch-Institute (RKI), Germany’s center for disease control, and asked to have the genome sequence of the student’s positive viral sample decoded.
The result arrived on Jan. 7. The student was found to be carrying the new B.1.1.7 variant of the virus.
Then, last week, the first case of B.1.351, a mutant of the coronavirus from South Africa, was detected in the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg. It’s also thought to be much more contagious than previous variants. It had been brought into the state by a family that had arrived back from South Africa in mid-December.
The family had quarantined themselves as required under coronavirus regulations, and five days later they received a negative result after getting tested. But family members developed symptoms of the disease a week later. By then, six people from three different households had been infected.
In the neighboring state of Bavaria, there are also now three confirmed cases of coronavirus mutants and one suspected case. One patient who had become infected with the British variant was brought to a Munich hospital for treatment around the New Year has since passed away.
“The new variant of the virus has arrived in Germany,” says Clemens Wendtner, chief physician at the München Klinik hospital in Munich’s Schwabing district. It must be a feeling of déjà-vu for the physician, who also treated the very first known German COVID-19 patients last February. “The next few weeks will be decisive,” Wendtner says. “It’s possible that the pandemic will take on a whole new momentum.”
Image Credit: Phill Magakoe/AFP
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