Germany monitoring new Covid variant closely, says Health Minister

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach says experts are monitoring whether a new Omicron sub-variant of Covid-19 causing concern in the USA is appearing in Germany.

German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach wears a mask during a press conference in 2022.
German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach wears a mask during a press conference in 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

The sub-variant, known as XBB.1.5, is another strain of the Omicron Covid variant. It is the most transmissible variant to date according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). 

According to estimates by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the sub-variant accounted for about 40.5 percent of all new infections in the US in the week leading up to the new year.  At the beginning of December, it accounted for about four percent of cases.

The US has also seen Covid hospital admissions rising in recent weeks. It is particularly prevalent in the north-east of the country.

Health Minister Lauterbach, of the Social Democrats, said he was watching the situation closely.

“The new XBB.1.5 variant is causing hospital admissions to rise in the north-east of the USA,” he said.

“Hopefully, we will get through the winter before such a variant can spread in our country. We are monitoring whether and how strongly XBB.1.5 is appearing in Germany.”

READ ALSO: When will German states drop compulsory masks on public transport

The mutation has been detected in 29 countries so far, with an increased incidence in Europe recently. 

The WHO said it is monitoring the spread of the variant discovered in October, which is the “most transmissible subvariant that has been detected yet”, according to Maria Van Kerkhove, head of the WHO’s Corona pandemic programme.

So far, however, there is no evidence that XBB.1.5 causes more severe illness than other virus variants.

Van Kerkhove said that the increase in cases make it clear how important it is to continue to monitor Covid-19 worldwide.

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Is the pandemic over in Germany?

As much of Germany lifts - or prepares to lift - the last remaining Covid-19 measures, intensive care units say Covid-19 admissions are no longer straining the system.

Is the pandemic over in Germany?

Despite a difficult winter of respiratory illnesses, intensive care units in Germany say Covid-19 admissions have almost halved. The number of cases having to be treated in the ICU has gone down to 800 from 1,500 at the beginning of this month.

“Corona is no longer a problem in intensive care units,” Gernot Marx, Vice President of the German Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine, told the German Editorial Network. “A the moment, we don’t have to think every day about how to still ensure the care of patients, but how to actually run a service that can help.”

Marx said the drop has allowed them to catch up on many postponed surgeries.

The number of sick employees in hospitals is also falling, helping to relieve the pressure on personnel.

The easing pressure on hospitals correlates with the assessment of prominent virologist and head of the Virology department at Berlin’s Charite – Christian Drosten – who said in December that the pandemic was close to ending, with the winter wave being an endemic one.

German federal and state governments are now in the midst of lifting the last of the country’s pandemic-related restrictions. Free Covid-19 antigen tests for most people, with exceptions for medical personnel, recently ended.

READ ALSO: Free Covid-19 tests end in Germany

Six federal states – Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, Hessen, Thuringia, Lower Saxony, and Schleswig-Holstein – have ended mandatory isolation periods for people who test positive for Covid-19.

Bavaria, Saxony-Anhalt, and Schleswig-Holstein have ended the requirement to wear FFP2 masks on public transport, while Berlin, Brandenburg, Saxony, Thuringia, and Mecklenburg-West Pomerania will follow suit on February 2nd.

At that time, the federal government will also drop its requirement for masks to be worn on long-distance trains. Labour Minister Hubertus Heil says that’s when he also intends to exempt workplaces – apart from medical locations – from a mask requirement.

READ ALSO: Germany to drop mask mandate in trains and buses from February 2nd

Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg will also end the requirement for patients to wear a mask in doctor’s offices. That’s a requirement that, so far, will stay in place everywhere else. Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach has also said that he thinks this requirement should remain. 

But some public health insurers and general practitioners are calling for a nationwide end to the obligation for wearing masks in doctor’s offices.

“The pandemic situation is over,” National Association of Statutory Health Physicians (KBV) Chair Andreas Gassen told the RND network. “High-risk patients aren’t treated in all practices. It should generally be left up to medical colleagues to decide whether they want to require masks in their practices.”