'We can outsmart this virus with the knowledge we have' says German professor of virology

Prof. Streeck describes how a "proper balance" is essential and why lockdown is not only damaging but also unnecessary.

Y Rabinovitz ,

No need for such stringent enforcement
No need for such stringent enforcement
REUTERS/Reinhard Krause

As countries across the world increasingly admit that they are battling a “second wave” or resurgence of the coronavirus, responses vary from outright denial of the existence of a problem to panic verging on hysteria, or perhaps despair. Professor Hendrik Streeck, director of Germany’s Institute of Virology at Bonn University, seeks to take a middle path, one that he described for The Telegraph this week.

“We have to realize that Covid-19 is going to be with us for a long time, and we must learn to live with it,” he says, seeking to put to rest any vain ideas of somehow eliminating a virus we had never heard of a year ago. But rather than sounding a note of resignation, he proposes “finding a proper balance. I neither trivialize the virus, nor do I dramatize it,” he says.

From a study of the data, there seems to be good reason to look to Germany for a positive example of how to respond to this pandemic. Germany’s death toll is extremely low compared to many other European countries: 113 per million inhabitants, as opposed to 652 in Spain, 614 in the United Kingdom, 591 in Italy, and 479 in France. To what does he attribute this success?

“I am convinced that changes in behavior have had a huge impact,” he says, describing the willingness of the population to adhere to government guidelines as well as something that might sound surprising to those unfamiliar with German culture – staying home from work when unwell, rather than stoically turning up and putting in the hours at one’s desk while potentially infecting others.

During the spring, when doctors and scientists were as yet unaware of what exactly they were dealing with, Professor Streeck supported a lockdown, unlike his colleagues in Sweden – where the death rate has been four times greater than in Germany. Back then, it was proper to be cautious, he says, but now he vehemently opposes lockdown policies, pointing to the damage done by “irrational” measures that have caused many aspects of our lives once considered essential to be brought to a standstill, with widespread and often long-lasting consequences.

“We can’t keep shutting down our daily lives and paralyzing everything,” he says. And according to him, there is absolutely no need to do so. He insists that the evidence we already have on the spread of the virus from social interaction clearly indicates that casual contact such as that in stores, hairdressers, and perhaps even gyms is not nearly as dangerous as many fear. Instead, he points to large gatherings in enclosed spaces as the real culprits in the spread of the virus – and these are easily managed, in theory, and don’t involve shutting the economy down, even though they may demand a new approach to be taken with regard to cultural venues and the like.

He describes a modified way of living that allows for a continuation of daily life without adding unnecessary risk, and points out that the increasing numbers of those diagnosed with the coronavirus is not an indication that a country, or region, has taken a wrong approach. “People are getting infected with a lower dose because of social distancing, and they are getting a less severe illness. Better hygiene and measures like masks have brought down the viral load,” he says. “This is why it is no good looking at just case numbers any more. You have to look at what is happening in the medical wards and intensive care beds. That is a much better guide to this pandemic.”

Furthermore, he describes how advances in medical treatment mean that more seriously ill patients are making good recoveries – use of anticoagulants as well as new drugs has saved many, as has tighter surveillance of patients on ventilators. All of these, of course, depend on having a healthcare system that isn’t overwhelmed with patients and struggling to cope with a large number of staff in isolation due to their own infection. Therefore, he proposes what he describes as a “traffic light” system, leading one to wonder if his was the inspiration for Israel’s now-abandoned system. He describes how such a system has been operating in Austria, with high risk areas subject to greater restrictions and other parts of the country carrying on virtually as normal.

Those who oppose such a localized approach often argue that insufficient controls on travel from one place to another will lead to the spreading of “red” zones. Professor Streeck expresses doubt that this is a significant concern, suggesting that areas of such high contagion may already be approaching herd immunity.

“It will be very interesting to watch what happens in cities that have already had a lot of infections. It would not surprise me if New York has already reached effective herd immunity,” he says. And although a few studies seem to indicate that immunity to Covid-19 fades after a very short time – a matter of months – he does not concur. “We’ve had over 30 million cases worldwide and only two described cases of reinfection,” he points out. “That tells you there must be more lasting immunity. We know from other coronaviruses that you get one or two years of protection, and if you do get the diseases again you’ll still have partial immunity from T-cells so it won’t be as bad. I don’t think Covid-19 is going to be different,” he insists.

In conclusion, what is his prescription for the future? “Fear is often a useful reflex but in this situation it is bad counsel,” he advises. “It is time to stop all this alarmism. We can outsmart the virus with the knowledge we have.”