German Chancellor Angela Merkel warns mutations could wreck progress in virus fight

BERLIN (BLOOMBERG) – Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that aggressive coronavirus mutations will gain the upper hand in Germany sooner or later, threatening to destroy progress made in containing the pandemic.

Europe’s largest economy needs to maintain tight controls even as contagion rates steadily decline and immunisations slowly ramp up, Dr Merkel said on Thursday (Feb 11).

The fast-spreading British variant is already in the country and strains from Brazil and South Africa are also a risk, she added.

“Experts tell us that it will be only a matter of time until these mutations will become dominant,” Dr Merkel said in a speech to Parliament in Berlin.

“We know that the danger of mutations can again wreck our successes.”

Under pressure from state leaders, the Chancellor agreed late on Wednesday to loosen some virus restrictions and open a pathway to a return to some semblance of normality after months of stringent curbs.

With elections looming and Dr Merkel’s tenure coming to an end, political positioning has played a role in Germany’s efforts to contain the disease.

The pace of easing will depend on the infection rate, which has been receding steadily in recent weeks, but remains above the level the government has determined to be manageable.

To ease the burden on pandemic-weary citizens, schools can begin reopening as soon as this month and hairdressers from March 1.

Dr Merkel and regional leaders set stiff criteria for non-essential stores to restart.

Authorities held off on a broader plan amid concerns about virus strains.

The Chancellor sought a slower opening and noted that sending children back to schools and daycares was a decision left to the states.

Officials were under pressure to act as the number of Covid-19 cases drops toward the government target of 50 per 100,000 people over seven days.

After peaking at close to 200 before Christmas, the incidence rate was at 64.2 on Thursday, according to the RKI public health institute.

“We’re not far away from infection numbers which can make step-by-step reopening and freedoms possible,” Dr Merkel said.

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“Sticking with all the efforts and privations until March 7, keeping the mutations in check and hopefully getting the seven-day incidence rate clearly below 50 is, in my view, worth the effort.”

The sluggish pace of vaccinations makes the country vulnerable to a potential renewed spike from fast-spreading variants.

Germany has so far administered just over four doses per 100 people, according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker.

That compares with 14 in the US and more than 20 in Britain, though both nations began several weeks earlier.

“In the end – and this is my firm conviction and also my task that I will continue to perform until my final day in office – we can defeat this pandemic together and lead our country into better times again,” said Dr Merkel, who will step down after 16 years in power following the September election.

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