In an interview with DER SPIEGEL, physicist Michael Meyer-Hermann discusses the successes and mistakes made by scientists during the coronavirus pandemic. He also warns of a new wave of infections as the Delta variant reaches Germany.
DER SPIEGEL: Professor Meyer-Hermann, the German mass-circulation tabloid Bild recently wrote that purportedly false forecasts had led us into a lockdown. They wrote of “horror curves” and “models of dread.” What does it feel like to be the villain of the yellow press?
Meyer-Hermann: (laughs) I don’t feel like they’re talking about me.
DER SPIEGEL: The accusation is that the “federal emergency brake” – the law that enabled the chancellor to impose strict national lockdown measures (powers normally given to individual states) – was pushed through with the help of horror scenarios created by alarmist modelers.
Meyer-Hermann: Every scenario, even an alleged horror scenario, is based on assumptions. For example, on the spread of a new, more contagious variant, on the opening of shops, restaurants and gyms and, at the same time, on the slow progress of the vaccination campaign. If these assumptions are realistic, and you are transparent about them, then even the steepest curve isn’t a horror scenario. It is just saying: This is what will happen under these conditions.
DER SPIEGEL: The more contagious Alpha variant (B.1.1.7) began to spread quickly in January, and all the curves pointed steeply upward. In the end, though, things didn’t quite turn out so badly. Were the calculations wrong?
Meyer-Hermann: No. But modeling has its limitations. For example, there is a very natural reaction in the population to be more cautious when case numbers go up, no matter what politicians say or decide. This, of course, causes the number of cases to drop again. You also can’t model the fact that people say two weeks before their vaccination appointment and two weeks after: “I’m not going to catch this stupid virus now that I’m in the final stretch!” These are unique dynamics that result in very opaque behavior. And no modeler can see more than four weeks into the future, anyway.
DER SPIEGEL: If most people automatically behave sensibly as soon as the number of infections goes up, then why do we need model calculations at all?
Meyer-Hermann: To stay one step ahead of the virus. However, if the necessary measures are not implemented until the virus gets ahead of us, then that time advantage has, of course, been lost.
DER SPIEGEL: And that happened often in Germany.
Meyer-Hermann: Indeed. That was a core problem in battling the pandemic. In October, at a very crucial point in the pandemic, we, as modelers, said the numbers would go up. That they would go up was as indisputable as the fact that it was preventable. But you have to take action. Instead, nothing happened for two weeks. And the resulting second wave cost an estimated 50,000 lives. That was not a horror scenario as some say. It was real horror.
DER SPIEGEL: If they had listened to you, would most of those people still be alive today?
Meyer-Hermann: I believe we could have had a good chance of preventing the second wave in the autumn. There are two basic stipulations for successfully battling a pandemic: You have to hit early and you have to hit hard. And in Germany, when the second wave rolled in, the reaction was slow and muddled.
DER SPIEGEL: At that time, in mid-October, you were advising the chancellor and the state governors. You were the only scientist who was called into the meeting. How did you end up being the one?
Meyer-Hermann: I am on Angela Merkel’s Council of Experts, so I assume she had something to say about it.
DER SPIEGEL: You are both physicists. Do you get along well?
Meyer-Hermann: It certainly helps that we speak the same language, especially when it comes to interpreting the results of our modeling correctly and recognizing the limits of what we can actually say with it. After all, as physicists, we aren’t trained to advise politicians. But I can explain things technically and Ms. Merkel will still understand. That is not the case with every politician. And before you even ask: I’m not naming any names.
DER SPIEGEL: What a shame. Your scenarios showed quite clearly that an early and hard lockdown in October probably would have broken the wave quickly. But your advice was ignored. In the end, there was just a lockdown light that wasn’t put in place until the beginning of November. How frustrating was that?
Meyer-Hermann: It was clear to me from the very start that there would be massive compromises relative to what I deemed sensible. And that the measures that were adopted would not go far enough. However, I did not see it as a failure, but rather as a success that the governors went as far as they did.
DER SPIEGEL: Seriously? Fifty-thousand deaths is a success?
Meyer-Hermann: Yes, within the scope of what was realistically possible in terms of giving policy advice. There were contact restrictions, after all, and they did work. We would have been worse off without them. In that respect, I’m glad it wasn’t 100,000 dead.
DER SPIEGEL: Is there anything you could have done better?
Meyer-Hermann: Yes. In September, we didn’t really want to see what was happening – myself included, unfortunately. We were coasting on the low numbers from the summer. If we modelers had sounded the alarm earlier, it’s possible we would have been listened to.
DER SPIEGEL: There was another important meeting of German state governors in January. The numbers of infections were falling and there was a great yearning for a loosening of the lockdown measures among the populace. But the Alpha variant was on the advance.
Meyer-Hermann: At that meeting, there were eight of us scientists, and we more or less spoke with a single voice. It was quite a strong message. Still, nothing happened, and in February, they just opened things up, against better judgment.
DER SPIEGEL: Did you start wondering whether what you were doing really mattered?
Meyer-Hermann: You mean, why we were even bothering with the modeling? Yeah, we did. People should have learned from their mistakes!
DER SPIEGEL: Beyond the meetings of the state governors, other politicians were also being advised by academics who were explicitly opposed to lockdowns. How are lay people supposed to distinguish which advice is scientifically sound and which is not?
Meyer-Hermann: That is a problem, because you can really only do that if you go deep enough into the science. You can’t really expect that of politicians.
DER SPIEGEL: Some media outlets gave prominence to opinions that could hardly be supported scientifically. This created the impression that scientists were divided into two, equal camps and they just had to meet in the middle. To what extent did that false equivalence harm the pandemic response?
Meyer-Hermann: Given that the behavior of the population is even more important than that of the politicians in a pandemic, communication has indeed often been borderline. The wrong messages have certainly caused some people to rebel against what they perceive to be excessive measures and to underestimate the virus, to think of it as some kind of flu virus.
DER SPIEGEL: What do you say to colleagues who spread those kinds of things?
Meyer-Hermann: I asked some of them whether they were aware that they sounded as though they were playing down the risks. The strange thing is that they didn’t see it that way. But maybe that innocence was feigned. I can’t tell.
DER SPIEGEL: Economic concerns are frequently behind resistance to lockdowns.
Meyer-Hermann: Yet there is now overwhelming evidence that in the pandemics of the past 100 years, those countries that took stronger measures ultimately wound up better off, both economically and in terms of health. Unfortunately, because this knowledge has not caught on, there are interest groups that think they are helping the economy by opposing the lockdowns.
DER SPIEGEL: You have declared your support for the No Covid initiative, which had the goal, as in New Zealand and Australia, of reducing the number of cases as far as possible in order to then enable the loosening of coronavirus containment measures. Did you cross the line into activism?
Meyer-Hermann: No. I am part of the core group of the No Covid initiative. I stand by that. I still think the low incidence strategy is the best way to deal with the pandemic. And I am also convinced that if we had followed this path consistently – and we did have the chance to do so last summer and again now – that we would have fared much better in the pandemic, with fewer deaths and significantly less economic damage. That’s not activism, it’s just reasonable. What we are proposing are very concrete measures that we have made available to the public. It’s a detailed plan, not some kind of fantasy.
DER SPIEGEL: Where are the blind spots in modeling? What are we unable to see, or can see only indistinctly?
Meyer-Hermann: It is particularly difficult to distinguish the effect that each individual measure has had. This has unsettled many in politics and society, because we didn’t know which measure was correct and which was not.
DER SPIEGEL: What was the biggest mistake you made?
Meyer-Hermann: I may not have communicated well enough. I still think about that to this day. Should I have appeared on more talk shows? But then I probably would have quickly lost my effectiveness – always that old Meyer-Hermann in front of the camera that no one wants to see anymore. On the other hand, maybe I should have done more to counter the false equivalence you spoke of earlier
DER SPIEGEL: Didn’t you?
Meyer-Hermann: It’s pretty intense when you, as a researcher, suddenly find yourself in front of the camera for the prime-time news and top talk shows. I wasn’t always happy with how I got my position across.
DER SPIEGEL: Where did you fail to do so?
Meyer-Hermann: In the discussion with the mayor of Tübingen, Boris Palmer, for example, around the question of whether people who die from COVID-19 lose an average of 11 months of life, as Palmer falsely claimed, or nine years, as a study had just shown. I didn’t get through, I could have shown more conviction. Then I might have reached more people.
DER SPIEGEL: But talk shows are not the only means for scientists to reach people in a pandemic.
Meyer-Hermann: That’s true. Starting in April of last year, I began receiving an incredible flood of emails. Of course, there was the usual hate mail. But most of the letters were from people seeking advice. I answered them to the extent possible. I didn’t manage to get to all of them, of course, but I know that my answers were often forwarded on to others as well. As a result, I unfortunately now have an inbox with over 10,000 unread emails. So, I apologize herewith to all the people who didn’t receive a reply.
DER SPIEGEL: What will you focus your research on once the pandemic is over?
Meyer-Hermann: I hope that after the pandemic, I will be able to look into the interplay between the nervous and immune systems. It’s incredibly complex and exciting!
DER SPIEGEL: Physicists and mathematicians often look for beauty in a mathematical equation. Is that also a motivation for you?
Meyer-Hermann: It’s more something that made me leave physics and go into biology. The beauty of the equation isn’t sufficiently true-to-life for me. I was looking for the practical application, a concrete connection to society.
DER SPIEGEL: As a physicist and mathematician working in the field of medicine, do you also need something along the lines of intuition?
Meyer-Hermann: In modeling, you need intuition to define the ranking, to evaluate how important which factor is, which development in the pandemic, which characteristic of the virus. How critical is the new Delta variant? You have to look at where the core issues are that really matter. And for that, you need gut instinct. This requires a precise knowledge of the facts and a certain willingness to enter uncertain territory.
DER SPIEGEL: Then let’s do that right now: How is the summer going to be?
Meyer-Hermann: The Delta variant is coming. We have calculated that to keep the reproduction rate below 1 in the next few months – in other words, to avoid exponential growth again, you would have to reduce contacts by 50 percent compared to 2019. That’s the number we’re working with. With that in mind, though, it would make sense for us to develop a culture of wearing masks and complying with the basic hygiene rules for a long time to come.
DER SPIEGEL: Are you opposed to eliminating the compulsory wearing of masks?
Meyer-Hermann: I am particularly worried about the unvaccinated children at school if the mask requirement is abolished there. Especially given that we have consistently managed to relax the measures early enough to ensure a new wave.
DER SPIEGEL: If all goes well, what are you most looking forward to when everything is open again?
Meyer-Hermann: Quite clearly social contacts!
DER SPIEGEL: Not trips to far away countries? Your profile on your institute’s website says that you have hiked through Canadian forests where the only encounters to be had are with garter snakes. What were you looking for?
Meyer-Hermann: Nothing! That was the idea.
DER SPIEGEL: Professor Meyer-Hermann, thank you for this interview.