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

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Titelmotiv (Digital) DER SPIEGEL 23/2020, Christian Drosten

Germany’s most famous virologist Christian Drosten has been the target of hatred and adoration. In an interview, he tells DER SPIEGEL how he is dealing with his newfound fame and what comes next in the fight against COVID-19.

Interview Conducted by Rafaela von Bredow und Veronika Hackenbroch

DER SPIEGEL: Professor Drosten, millions of people listen to your podcast and you have more than 300,000 followers on Twitter. Each of your tweets is shared hundreds of times and receives thousands of likes. How are you enjoying your newfound fame?

Drosten: I don’t really notice it all that much. I’m not really a social media guy, and prior to the pandemic, I hadn’t sent out a tweet in two years. I am also now reading very little about myself. And my podcast feels more like a dialogue with the science journalist who interviews me. As if it were just the two of us.

DER SPIEGEL: Are you sometimes approached by people on the street?

Drosten: If I have recently been on a talk show, then yes, people will recognize me for a few days afterwards. I’ll notice that people look at me differently. Sometimes, I can hear people whispering, but they are always friendly, and nobody says: “You idiot!” like they do in the hate mail that I have recently begun receiving more often.

DER SPIEGEL: At the beginning of the corona crisis, you stepped out onto the public stage of your own free will. Why?

Drosten: I didn’t want to expose myself to later accusations that I had failed to issue timely warnings that people here could die too. And who else should inform people about the pandemic and explain it to them? As somebody who works with coronaviruses, I simply felt it was my duty. That’s why I made the decision in mid-January to invest the majority of my time in informing the public and to shift my working group’s focus to the introduction of a test.

DER SPIEGEL: And to neglect your research projects?

Drosten: Our decision in January to devote ourselves to the development of a diagnostic test and to send it around half the world was not particularly spectacular from a scientific point of view. It took an incredible amount of time, but it was more of a public service than a research breakthrough.

DER SPIEGEL: Without you, would Germany have been worse prepared for the pandemic?

Drosten: Yes, of course. By mid-February, we had got university clinics to the point that they could perform diagnostic tests, and they frequently shared their knowledge and material with other labs. In mid-February, we in Germany were able to perform routine tests for SARS-CoV-2 at a time when hardly any other country could do so. Around the time of Carnival, we had our first positive test from someone who had not been travelling prior to infection. That was in the state of Baden-Württemberg. Nobody knew where he had become infected. At that point it was clear: The virus was already spreading unnoticed in Germany.

DER SPIEGEL: Wouldn’t that have become obvious at some point anyway?

Drosten: Yes, but only a month later when the dead started piling up as they did in Italy, Spain and Britain. That’s how long it takes from infection to death in the intensive care unit. And we – and by that, I mean, my laboratory – managed to use that month to give Germany a head start. That is why we find ourselves in such a good position today. If we hadn’t been able to perform tests so early, if we scientists had not informed the politicians, then I think that we in Germany would have seen 50,000 to 100,000 more fatalities.

DER SPIEGEL: You financed your medical studies by working as a nurse in an intensive care unit. Did that help you understand how dangerous COVID-19 could be?

Drosten: Of course. When I first saw the images from the intensive care units in Italy, where the patients were lined up on their stomachs being artificially ventilated, I immediately knew: This is really bad. Patients who undergo such treatment don’t recover after just a few days, it takes several weeks. And that means that intensive care units are jammed for a long time, and the chances of survival are poor.

DER SPIEGEL: Why did you become a virologist and not an intensive care doctor?

Drosten: I realized at the time that when patients could no longer be saved and when their families had to bid farewell, I was taking the trauma home with me. At around that time, I met the man who would later become my Ph.D. adviser and my interest in molecular biology and virology began to grow.

DER SPIEGEL: Now, you find yourself in a conflict with Germany’s best-selling tabloid Bild. The paper has gone on the attack against you and accused you of erroneous research.

Drosten: Should I be afraid? I don’t think so. The last time I read a copy of Bild was at the time when Boris Becker was on the cover after he won Wimbledon. Bild is not part of my daily life and nobody in my circle of acquaintances reads Bild. So, I really don’t know much about it.

DER SPIEGEL: The paper’s headline this week, “Drosten Study about Contagious Children Badly Wrong,” was intended to discredit you as a scientist.

Drosten: It could be that people who only read Bild believe that Drosten is a bad scientist, that I am clueless and that I have steered this country’s fate in the wrong direction – and all the other fables that have been produced. But to discredit me as a scientist, other scientists would have to believe what Bild writes. In reality, I have been receiving only support recently, a couple of isolated exceptions notwithstanding.

DER SPIEGEL: Your study focuses on whether children who have become infected with the novel coronavirus are just as contagious as adults. The answer to that question is crucial to the decision as to whether schools and daycare centers can be allowed to reopen.

Drosten: On these vital questions, there is unfortunately still a lack of serviceable studies. And as long as the schools remain closed, such studies can’t be carried out. That’s why we decided to take a look at the viral load in the throats of infected children. That is an indication of how contagious they are.

DER SPIEGEL: Just as your study was released, it was criticized – in statements, in expert articles, on twitter and in emails.

Drosten: Yes, most of the criticism came from experts in statistics. Some of it was rather bizarre. Astrophysicists recommended we use statistical methods that can be used to analyze the signal coming from a quasar. Extremely high-precision methods, but perhaps a bit much when it comes to the viral load in the throats of children. For the rather rough data at our disposal, we chose a less precise statistical tool.

DER SPIEGEL: The question is whether the results of your study correct. Can children be just as contagious as adults?

Drosten: Our data shows – at first glance, really – that some children who exhibit no symptoms can have a viral load that is just as high as that of adult COVID-19 patients. Many of the suggestions we received from statistics experts were nevertheless extremely valuable for us. We have now revised the study and intend to submit it for publication shortly. We even managed to bring one of the critics on board as a co-author. But the result of the study did not change as a result of the revisions.

DER SPIEGEL: The Bild reporter Filipp Piatov saw things differently and wrote you an email on Monday …

Drosten: … in which he demanded that I provide comment within one hour.

DER SPIEGEL: You then posted the email from the Bild reporter on Twitter and wrote: “I have better things to do.”

Drosten: The statistical models in question are so complex that they cannot be explained in a brief comment, even if you devote far more than an hour to it. And I didn’t have the impression that Bild was really interested in understanding the scientific issue at hand. It was clear that they were planning a tendentious article. After it was published, it became clear that they didn’t even speak with the four critical statistics experts, and instead just took quotes out of context that they found online. The experts in question had no idea what was happening and distanced themselves from the Bild article via Twitter.

DER SPIEGEL: Bild Editor-in-Chief Julian Reichelt countered that you could have asked for the deadline for responding to the paper to be pushed back.

Drosten: I didn’t feel that the query was sufficiently rooted in a desire to understand the subject matter at hand. And I have only known since Monday who Mr. Reichelt is.

DER SPIEGEL: Many people hate you for your role in the pandemic, and many more people idolize you. There are hashtags like #TeamDrosten and there are people that want to be tattooed with an image of your face. Some see you as a kind of super-scientist. Are you enjoying the adoration?

Drosten: I think that only really happens in the media and it isn’t relevant for me and my colleagues in scientific research. There are certainly better scientists than me working in virology in Germany. I don’t think any of them see me as the best. I’m just in the center of attention at the moment because my work is currently focusing on the virus.

DER SPIEGEL: On the other hand, you have also been confronted by hatred. As you wrote on Twitter, you received a vile piece of mail on Tuesday. What was it?

Drosten: The state criminal office is analyzing it. It looked like a human blood serum (laughs), but it could also have come from a goat. There was a message along with it: “drink this – then you’ll be immune.” Such hate mail has become normal, often they are completely crackpot texts full of spelling mistakes. Some of those who write are just pitiable, while others are extremely narcissistic, malicious and manipulative.

DER SPIEGEL: There was also that poster showing you together with the concentration camp doctor Josef Mengele.

Drosten: I believe that was a criminal offense and it resulted in an immediate criminal complaint. I hope they find who did it. And I hope to see them in court.

DER SPIEGEL: Thus far, Germany has managed well in the pandemic, yet there are still angry protests from corona rebels, anti-vaxxers and right-wingers, both on the streets and in the internet. But there are also more moderate critics who believe that researchers like you overshot the mark and are responsible for Germany’s economic collapse. Have you or the politicians been guilty of poor communication?

Drosten: I don’t believe that we have done anything wrong. We managed to stop a pandemic wave with relatively mild measures, and we did so quite efficiently and without a huge number of fatalities. I think we should tell the corona-deniers: Take a look abroad. We have managed to do something in Germany that no other comparable country in the world has been able to do.

DER SPIEGEL: Many people have the feeling that nothing actually happened.

Drosten: Yes, prevention is a bit of a paradox: Nothing happened because we managed to prevent it from happening. That was the point of the measures we adopted. And now, when we recommend the careful lifting of measures, some say: Aha, the experts are flip-flopping. Drosten is reversing course. Now, he is suddenly recommending something completely different. I mean, did anyone really think that once we shut things down, we never planned to open them up again?

DER SPIEGEL: Is the hate directed at you also informed by a general skepticism of science, fueled by anti-vaxxers in their filter bubbles on social media?

Drosten: I think something is being projected on my person. It’s not general skepticism of science, it is more that people have suffered under the shutdown measures, as mild as they may have been. Many people simply have the feeling that drastic limitations on their daily lives are being implemented over their heads.

DER SPIEGEL: Limitations that you were involved in, since you advised Chancellor Angela Merkel and the leaders of Germany’s federal states to implement them.

Drosten: My role as a political adviser has been radically exaggerated. It is largely a fable.

DER SPIEGEL: Then Interior Minister Horst Seehofer was incorrect when he said in a talk show that you were initially opposed to shutting down the schools, only to voice support for the idea the very next day in a conference call with Germany’s state governors?

Drosten: Let me tell you what happened. For one thing, a number of scientists took part in that conference. And our message was simple: We simply can’t know how dangerous schools are as a potential source of infection.

DER SPIEGEL: And where did your change of opinion come from?

Drosten: I really did think that we could leave the schools open and start by banning large gatherings. But on the evening before the conference, a scientist from the U.S. wrote me and she said: Be careful Drosten, you are wrong, the schools play a special role and here are the arguments. She explained it to me and attached a study, and it was exactly this scientific knowledge that I shared in the conference of state leaders. There wasn’t anything more to it.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you mean to say that you had no influence on political decisions?

Drosten: I do believe that my podcast is closely monitored in ministerial departments. I mean, how can I, as a researcher, make my message any more transparent than I do in the podcast?

DER SPIEGEL: You even used your study on viral loads to provide recommendations to political leaders. It explicitly states that you warned against reopening schools and daycare centers.

Drosten: If you read the entire study, then you will find a detailed list of the uncertainties. In that context, there is a sentence that was formulated extremely carefully saying that, according to the data we currently have at our disposal, as uncertain as it may be, we cannot with a clear conscience recommend that schools be reopened without restrictions.

DER SPIEGEL: The media psychologist Frank Schwab compared you in DER SPIEGEL with Gandalf from “Lord of the Rings” or Obi Wan Kenobi in “Star Wars:” You aren’t fighting on the front lines, but you are standing alongside the heroes, sharing your experience and wisdom. Is that an accurate comparison?

Drosten: Who is that? I don’t know those characters.

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.

Der Spiegel

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