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Interview with RKI president Lothar Wieler: "We must not underestimate this virus"

Interview with RKI president Lothar Wieler : "We must not underestimate this virus"

Professor Dr. Lothar Wieler is president of the Robert Koch Institute and explains in ongoing assessments what the Corona virus situation is like. In this GA interview, the man from Königswinter talks about the current situation in Germany, how things will continue and what it is like to suddenly be in the spotlight.

Professor Dr. Lothar Wieler, veterinarian and specialist in microbiology and President of the Robert Koch Institute, has been giving an assessment of the situation in Germany several times a week since the beginning of the Corona crisis. Wieler grew up in Königswinter.

What is your assessment of the current situation?

Lothar Wieler: We are still at the beginning of a pandemic. Thanks to the measures that have been implemented in our country for about two weeks now, we have managed to slow down the spread of the virus. This is a welcome success of our strategy, but this is only a momentary state of affairs and we have to check the situation again and again at short intervals in order to be able to tighten or relax the measures. We will still have this virus in our country for months to come and we must therefore continue to pay close attention to breaking the chains of infection.

What will happen next?

Wieler: Since we know that it is a pandemic, that the virus can be transmitted very easily and that there are also many serious developments, the only question is how many millions of people will be infected and how many of them will become seriously ill or die. Until then, the whole aim must be to reduce the scale. We are doing everything we can to achieve this. I see it as a task to shake people up. We have a very strong health care system - also in terms of the number of intensive care beds and ventilation places. But this should not lull us into the certainty that we are saying we can cushion all this. We still expect to have more cases than the health system can cope with. In any case, we cannot rule that out. We cannot underestimate this virus.

What do you think about the discussion on exit strategies?

Wieler: In principle, one has to think about all options. However, this should not be understood to mean that an exit is imminent. It is definitely too early to think about the exit itself, we should rather consider a gradual transit. But of course, concepts must be developed.

Will the schools open again after the Easter holidays?

Wieler: We really have to look and constantly assess the situation, which is changing every day. Let us evaluate this situation in peace and quiet and develop criteria. Then we will see what happens after April 20.

You were also criticized recently because you first said that the situation would relax, but then you warned and spoke of the danger of Italian conditions in Germany. Is the criticism of you and the RKI justified?

Wieler: It is probably normal if every word is listened to. I explain as factually and soberly as possible, and of course in accordance with the current epidemiological situation. We can assess the situation so well because we have so many scientists at the institute who have been working on Corona for many weeks. There is a lot of expertise. We are also advised by national and international expert groups. The assessments we make are sound. In this respect there were no contradictory statements. In such a dynamic situation, the risk assessment can be day-to-day.

What do you think about Bonn virologist Hendrik Streeck's criticism of the RKI for failing to back up data in Heinsberg at an early stage?

Wieler: At the beginning of the outbreak, a team from the Robert Koch Institute was in Heinsberg and helped fight the outbreak. The study that Prof. Streeck is conducting is very important. We hope that we can learn a lot from it, including how good the evidence is for other outbreaks. Let me give you an example to illustrate this – one important statement is the number of unreported cases: how many people have already been infected without having tested positive. Then the significance of the information depends very much on how many tests were carried out at the beginning of the outbreak, for example: If there were only a few, then the number of undetected cases is overestimated; if there were many, it is underestimated.

What does it do to you personally to suddenly be in the spotlight like this?

Wieler: It's a great responsibility and a lot of public pressure, which demands my full concentration. Otherwise I hope that I grow with the task and that it doesn't affect me otherwise.

Can you still go shopping unrecognised?

Wieler: I actually almost never go shopping because I am in the institute all day. But it is actually the case that people look at me or talk to me more often when I am on the road. Many thank me and the Robert Koch Institute for our work. That is quite a different public perception.

You are married and have two daughters. How do you deal with the contact ban in the family?

Wieler: Both daughters are currently at home because the universities are closed. We stick very much to staying at home and the distance rule. We only go shopping, to work and for a walk. We also stay away from the in-laws because they are older and belong to the risk groups. When we meet, it's at a distance.

Do you have any free time left?

Wieler: Very little. But that wasn't any different before, even though the working days have become a bit longer now. And the weekends have become even longer.

You grew up in Königswinter-Oberpleis. Until when did you live there?

Wieler: Until October 1980.

What memories do you have?

Wieler: When I was born, Oberpleis still had its own town hall. It was a very beautiful, carefree youth. We spent a lot of time in the fresh air and played football, badminton and tennis. My father was a veterinarian in Oberpleis. At that time there was still a lot of agriculture with cattle breeding. My brothers and sisters and I often drove through the countryside with him and stayed in cowsheds.

You attended the grammar school at the Oelberg and last year you gave the speech for the 50th school anniversary there. How was your school time?

Wieler: I was not a diligent student and enjoyed my school time a lot. My ambition on the football field was certainly greater than at school. During my school days I tried to achieve maximum profit with as little effort as possible. But you also need luck in life. When I was unexpectedly offered a place to study in Berlin after my Abitur in 1980, my attitude suddenly changed because I suddenly had a concrete goal in mind.

Where did you play football?

Wieler: I was at TuS 05 Oberpleis for many years, but also for two years at FV Bad Honnef. At the age of 15 or 16 I played as a goalkeeper in the Mittelrhein selection. At TuS we had a very ambitious coach who was a sports teacher at the Realschule. That was a real grinder.

You are a fan of the 1. FC Köln. How often are you in the stadium?

Wieler: Since I live in Berlin, it is hardly possible for me to attend matches. Since my parents, who lived in Oberpleis, died nine years ago, I am rarely in the Rhineland. I go to the stadium maybe once a year.

In your anniversary speech in your old school you expressed your admiration for Greta Thunberg. Why?

Wieler: We have some excellent scientists in Germany who have brought the issue of climate change into people's consciousness. But Greta Thunberg has reached a public and a level of attention that none of the scientists has managed to achieve. We scientists are glad that Greta Thunberg exists, because she makes science's voice heard. She does not argue polemically or populistically, but with scientific arguments, which is why she must be taken seriously. That is very, very authentic. What is largely a consensus among scientists, she has formulated with a youthful self-confidence and also mercilessly. I think that's great