Virologist Christian Drosten: “We Managed to Stop a Pandemic Wave with Relatively Mild Measures”

DER SPIEGEL: Seriously?

Drosten: I’ve never read “Lord of the Rings” and I’ve never seen “Star Wars.” And regarding my role as a political adviser, I’m neither the captain nor the coxswain. At most, perhaps, a navigator. I read the maps.

DER SPIEGEL: How will things continue from here?

Drosten: We are really in a good situation at the moment. The shutdown has largely been lifted and more and more things are opening – and there hasn’t been an immediate flourishing of the pandemic. It could very well be that the virus largely leaves us alone for a time.

DER SPIEGEL: For how long?

Drosten: Not forever. But perhaps we can avoid a second shutdown. In the beginning, we definitely needed the entire palette of measures because we didn’t know for sure what would help. Now, we have a better understanding of the virus and we know more about how it spreads.

DER SPIEGEL: What about schools and daycare centers? Would you like to see them open now as well?

Drosten: It’s clear that we have to open them, and they can’t really be opened halfway. Even if we still don’t know for sure how contagious children are. And then we have to see what tools can be used to prevent a big outbreak there in its early phase – an outbreak that is otherwise certain to come.

DER SPIEGEL: No singing in church. No cruises. No big parties. Is that our lives for the next several months?

Drosten: Parties could be a possibility if they are held outside and not too many people are involved. One could certainly imagine such a thing this summer.

DER SPIEGEL: And then a vaccine will solve the problem next spring?

Drosten: I am confident that by then there won’t just be a single vaccine. The process is kind of in the background in Germany, but we are on an extremely good path toward a vaccine.

DER SPIEGEL: But before it arrives, we will have winter – and the virus will return?

Drosten: Yes, it is relatively clear that temperature has a certain effect. The question is: Where does that effect come from? It is probably from people gathering in closed rooms in the winter. But perhaps we have the opportunity over the summer to prepare by developing guidelines, planning a new testing regime and thinking about how to trace developing outbreaks. And we can already begin preparing for the fact that there won’t be any congresses and conferences this fall and winter either.

DER SPIEGEL: Otherwise there could be a second wave?

Drosten: There is theoretically a possibility that we can forego a second wave. Because of the way the illness spreads: We have just a few people who infect many others …

DER SPIEGEL: … so-called super-spreaders.

Drosten: Exactly. And such an infection event is easier to control than a similar outbreak that is spreading under the radar, like we had in the beginning. When it becomes clear where such an outbreak is underway, we immediately have to take strict measures.

DER SPIEGEL: How? By testing everybody who has a bit of a cough?

Drosten: No, it is more a matter of understanding where and in what situations outbreaks are essentially a foregone conclusion. And how we can keep an eye on them. Confronting outbreaks has also become easier. There are new calculations that very clearly show that when an outbreak is identified, it doesn’t really help to start testing all the possible contact people. No matter what, we’ll always be too late. Inevitably. Instead, all contact persons should simply be quarantined, and not for 14 days anymore, but for just a bit longer than a week. The incubation and contagious periods – it’s all quite a bit shorter than we thought in the beginning.

DER SPIEGEL: What are the most significant questions that still haven’t been answered about this pandemic?

Drosten: The most obvious one is why children don’t show any symptoms. It doesn’t seem to be because they have a lower viral load in their throats. I also don’t believe it’s a plausible explanation that they have fewer of the receptors that are attacked by the virus in their nasal mucous membranes. And then, of course: What vaccine is the best?

DER SPIEGEL: What exactly do you mean?

Drosten: A vaccine should work in small doses and it should be easy to produce. And then, which vaccine should be used once the pandemic has passed? Do we have to vaccinate in perpetuity?

DER SPIEGEL: Is there anything about this virus that concerns you?

Drosten: The biggest question is: Will it become more virulent or will it weaken? It can certainly be optimized through evolution, that does worry me a bit. And what that might look like, whether it could become more deadly, we don’t know. I don’t want to be a pessimist, but there is an assumption that something similar happened in 1918 with the Spanish Flu, that the virus mutated as winter arrived.

DER SPIEGEL: What have you learned on your path from the laboratory to the national stage?

Drosten: I think I have become more thick-skinned. It’s quite good for me, because I’m actually not the kind of person who can protect himself from personal hostilities, even if others have said differently. It is possible to, well, mature a little bit from the experience.

DER SPIEGEL: According to media reports, Bild Editor-in-Chief Reichelt has challenged you to a duel. Are you planning on accepting, or do you have better things to do?

Drosten: What does that even mean, “challenging me to a duel?” It sounds like the 19th century. I have no idea what the point is.

DER SPIEGEL: Professor Drosten, thank you for this interview.

Icon: Der Spiegel

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