Braun: A look abroad explains everything. In countries that have lost control of the number of infections, the economy is also suffering dramatically. And at some point, the health care system gets overwhelmed. No country can say: We can handle it. Ultimately, tough restrictions will come anyway.
DER SPIEGEL: Virologist Streeck says that even the almost 20,000 new infections per day predicted by Chancellor Angela Merkel would be manageable because it’s mostly younger people who are getting infected, for whom the symptoms are milder. Is he right?
Braun: Over the summer, it tended to be younger people who dared to go on vacation. Older people are much more cautious of their own accord and are less likely to become infected, which explains why we have so few serious cases at the moment. But when the infection rates get very high, it becomes increasingly difficult to protect the most vulnerable groups. And it increases the risk of infection, in nursing homes, for example. The idea that we can control infections when they get to high levels is wrong. So, we have a choice: Either we keep it low and the health authorities can handle it. Or we lose control, and the virus spreads very rapidly through the population.
DER SPIEGEL: The concept of herd immunity, meaning as many as possible must get sick in order to then be immune from the coronavirus, is off the table?
Braun: To stop the virus in this way, more than half of all Germans would have to go through the infection. Even if you had a period of one and a half years for that to happen, 80,000 people would have to be infected every day. In that case, I don’t think we would be able to say that our health-care system could easily cope with such a thing. If we had the feeling that it was hopeless anyway and that we would soon get a vaccine, then we could consider a different approach. But there is a real chance, and that’s why we have to keep infection rates low over the winter.
DER SPIEGEL: What number is going to make you really nervous? At what point can the curve no longer be reversed?
Braun: There isn’t a single number. What would be alarming is exponential growth because it would mean losing control of the chains of infection. We need to keep infections under control, meaning: We inform the contacts and send them into quarantine early enough that one person, at most, will infect one other person.
DER SPIEGEL: And if that’s not successful, there isn’t much else that can be done?
Braun: Then one person infects an average of three to five others and it goes up rapidly. That’s why what we have seen in Berlin Mitte in recent days, namely exponential growth, is really alarming.
DER SPIEGEL: How certain are you that we can actually hope for a vaccine next spring? We’ve heard before that a vaccine might even be ready this autumn.
Braun: You can’t promise anything. We can currently see that there are quite a number of vaccines that are already being tested on humans and that they actually deliver immunity. There can always be setbacks with individual vaccines, and not all of them will be approved. But given that there are so many and that the first companies are entering into the approval process, I am very, very optimistic that we will have a vaccine next year.
DER SPIEGEL: But that’s not the end of the story. At that point, as many as possible will need to be vaccinated.
Braun: Then it will certainly take several months before we get enough vaccine and administer it. We are already making logistical preparations, and we are addressing the question as to who should be vaccinated and when. We have commissioned the Standing Vaccination Commission at the Robert Koch Institute (Germany’s center for disease control) to answer these questions at an early stage together with the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina and the German Ethics Council.
DER SPIEGEL: So far, we have not seen higher than normal mortality through the coronavirus, so there haven’t been more deaths than usual in Germany, despite the pandemic. Is the virus less lethal than initially thought?
Braun: No, I don’t think so. Think of the images from the Heinsberg district (Eds: the first region in Germany to get hit heavily by the coronavirus) and the higher mortality rate at the time. In the meantime, our health-care system is doing exemplary work. In contrast to the beginning, we have comparatively fewer cases in retirement homes. And the elderly population is being extremely cautious. In addition, social distancing rules are also preventing all other autumnal infectious diseases from spreading rapidly.