A top German virologist heavily played down fears about Britain’s mutant virus strain today, saying he was ‘not so worried’ and questioning Boris Johnson‘s claim that it is 70 per cent more infectious.
Christian Drosten said the 70 per cent figure was ‘simply called that’, suggesting that preliminary scientific estimates might have been overblown by politicians.
‘I wonder whether a scientist gave an estimate, perhaps asked what he would say if he had to give a figure, and then it takes on a life of its own. Then it enters politics and politicians use this figure and the media takes it up,’ Drosten said.
‘Suddenly there’s a figure out there, 70 per cent, and nobody even knows what it means,’ he told Deutschlandfunk radio.
‘The fact that top politicians are reciting scientific content to the media, saying that there’s been a mutation and that cases are growing by this and that much here and there, that’s unusual.’
Christian Drosten, pictured, regarded by some as Germany’s top virologist, has heavily played down the UK government’s claims about the new mutant strain of the coronavirus
Drosten, the director of virology at Berlin’s Charite Hospital and an often-quoted expert during the pandemic, also said it was unclear whether the surge in cases in Kent and the South East was really caused by the new strain at all.
Boris Johnson said in his Saturday press conference that the spread of infection in the South East ‘is now being driven by the new variant of the virus’.
Government figures show that infections were rising in Kent even during the month-long lockdown in November.
The PM used the new strain as justification to cancel Christmas plans for millions of people just days before the now-abandoned five-day grace period.
But Drosten said the new strain might simply have ‘come to the surface’ during a rise in cases which could have happened for other reasons.
‘The question is – was it the virus’s fault, or was it simply that in the area where this virus happened to be… methods of transmission came into play which would have brought any other virus to the surface?,’ he asked.
Drosten said British scientists had not said with any certainty that the new strain was more infectious, suggesting that more data would be needed to establish this.
‘If you want to know if a virus is more transmissible, you’ve have to look at pairs of people who were infected. You’d have to see who infected whom and how long it took,’ he said.
Boris Johnson, pictured at his Saturday press conference, used the new strain of the virus as justification for scrapping the five-day grace period over Christmas
More than a dozen European countries, and some nations outside Europe, have banned passenger flights from Britain because of the new strain
Germany is one of more than a dozen European countries which have shut their borders to British flights because of the mutant strain.
But Drosten said the new variant was probably already in Germany, saying he was ‘not so worried’ about its likely arrival from Britain.
‘We know that it’s already in Italy, in Holland, in Belgium, in Denmark, even in Australia,’ Drosten said, adding that none of these had reported a surge in mutant cases.
The virologist suggested that drastic measures by European governments could be ‘corrected’ within a few days if more data emerges from the UK.
Germany has also echoed Britain’s finding that the new strain is not expected to cause any problems for the Covid-19 vaccines which are already being rolled out.
Britain’s chief medical adviser Chris Whitty said that ‘urgent work’ was underway to confirm the effects of the new strain.
‘We have alerted the World Health Organization and are continuing to analyse the available data to improve our understanding,’ Whitty said on Saturday.
The border closures caused chaos in Britain after France announced that even lorries would be banned from reaching the continent for the next 48 hours.
The Channel Tunnel has closed with Eurostar and Le Shuttle services shut down, although France said it is working on a ‘protocol’ to resume cross-border traffic.
‘Whereas all other countries have allowed hauliers… the French went slightly further and said that hauliers shouldn’t cross either,’ transport minister Grant Shapps said.
‘The absolute key is to get it resolved as soon as possible,’ he told Sky News.
Germany, Canada, Italy, Chile and Argentina are among other countries to announce flight bans to and from the country.