«Curfews are now the wrong method,» the renowned virologist Karin Mölling explains in an interview.
The internationally renowned virologist Karin Mölling warns against tightened measures as a result of the corona-crisis in this interview with Tilo Gräser.
Professor Mölling, you are a recognized and awarded virologist. You have published a book on viruses. How do you assess the current situation around the SARS-Cov 2 (Covid-19) virus? How dangerous is this coronavirus?
This virus has led to a pandemic, which means it is very contagious and is present in many countries. But the virus does not cause a severe illness. There is a cousin of this virus, Mers-Corona, in camels. 37 percent of the infected camels will die. There is also the Ebola virus: those who are infected have an up to 90 percent chance of dying. These orders of magnitude are not the case here! The number of infected people and the exact death rate are not entirely known. Therefore the death rate fluctuates, but it is low.
I feel what’s going on right now is what we experience more or less every winter. This was particularly noticeable two years ago with influenza, the flu. The test for SARS-Corona 2 was not yet known. It may well be that this virus played a part. Nobody knows. We now have a winter season that is a bit delayed. Influenza is already waning and SARS-Corona 2 is still rising. The contagion rate is high. But in my opinion, the disease is not as bad as influenza; when I had it, I thought I would die. Everyone who has had the SARS-Corona 2 infection tells me that that’s not usually the case.
You have already appealed in interviews to put the events around SARS-Cov 2 in proportion. You also referred to the approximately 25,000 deaths [in Germany] from the 2017/18 flu wave. How should one understand this? How should this be put into context?
I believe that one actually only selectively looks at one thing here, and fills it with a certain panic. You are now told every morning how many SARS-Corona 2 deaths there are. But they don’t tell you how many people already are infected with influenza this winter and how many deaths it has caused.
This winter, the flu is not severe, but around 80,000 are infected. You don’t get these numbers at all. Something similar occurred two years ago. This is not put into the right context.
Every week a person dies in Berlin from multi-resistant germs. That adds up to 35,000 a year in Germany. This is not mentioned at all. I believe that we have had situations like this several times and that the measures are now being taken too far.
Politicians refer to virologists such as Professor Christian Drosten, for example, when they take measures, which are now being implemented and severely restrict public life. However, you do not find these measures proportionate. Why?
They are exaggerated! Mr. Drosten is a very good scientist. He also knows the numbers better than others. And he developed the test. The test has made us realize that people not only have influenza, but also another virus.
Mr. Drosten doesn’t make the decisions. He says: Could be the case, or could also not be the case! And he avoids predictions. At least initially, he was not in favor of urgently closing schools. Later he is reported to have said that he would be in favor of it and that it would be appropriate. There are also different opinions among virologists. There are also rabble-rousers amongst them, let’s disregard them for now. The Robert Koch Institute is pushing ahead little stronger. It is a health authority and structured differently than science.
On Wednesday I heard that Mr. Wieler from the Robert Koch Institute expects ten million people to be infected. I have to say: the infected are not even the big problem. You have to protect the old! And the large infection hubs. In cases of doubt, virology means isolation, shielding. We do that at airports. But how far that has to go in private life, in restaurants, in the family, in kindergarten and, above all, in playgrounds, I do not see the necessity for that the same way my colleagues maybe are.
I would draw the line at the aged. I am also counted as one of the aged. I am of the opinion that maybe one should not do so much against young people having parties together and infecting each other. We have to build immunity somehow. How can that be possible without contacts? The younger ones handle the infection much better. But we have to protect the elderly, and protect them in a way that can be scrutinized; is it reasonable what we are doing now, to stretch out the epidemic in a way that almost paralyzes the entire world economy?
Does that also mean that kindergartens, schools and restaurants would not have to be closed, as is currently the case? There is now talk of a possible curfew.
It will definitely come. We are now being softened up for it. [Bavarian leader] Söder said that on Thursday. Chancellor Merkel also left that open, but did not use the word. She spoke of «sense of proportion». A sense of proportion is something else in my eyes.
The Robert Koch Institute provides the figures. Then you sit there as a listener or spectator: 20 dead again, how terrible! Do you know when I’m starting to panic? If there are 20,000. Then we get close to what went on completely quietly two years ago.
The 2018 influenza epidemic, with 25,000 deaths, never disconcerted the press. The clinics had to deal with an additional 60,000 patients, which was no problem in the clinics either!
But that’s used as an argument. Politicians say: We want to prevent 20,000 deaths. That is why we now have to intervene drastically in the life of society.
I tell you: Nobody did that two years ago. Where is the need now? Is that just an imitation effect of what happened in China? I relate what is happening now to other situations. I know people tell me: influenza is different from [this] illness. But flu is a very serious illness, let’s make that clear. 25,000 deaths is a very heavy burden that we don’t want to have. But the clinics handled it. And now they are afraid that the clinics cannot handle it, we need more ventilators, but have gotten rid of 4,700 nurses. It will be complicated enough, the manufacturers cannot deliver that fast.
They want to stretch the whole thing out in time. All my hope by saving time rests on the quick tests from Hoffmann-La Roche. They always had the fastest and best tests. I helped develop the quick influenza test in Zurich and tested it on my patients. When that test comes, the hot air will soon deflate.
Development of vaccines will take at least a year. The first thing to do is a quick test. I was a HIV researcher and was very involved in these things. Quick tests helped a lot. If everyone then knows that there are only non-infected people on the plane or on the train, then you can sit down without fear that you will be called tomorrow and be stuck in quarantine for 14 days anywhere in the world.
That is the main fear: the disease is presented as a terrible disease. The disease per se is like the flu in a normal winter. It is even weaker in the first week. The problem with this SARS-Corona 2 epidemic is that it is inapparent for a fortnight: people don’t notice it and infect others.
One always refers to the example of Italy, where mortality is said to be significantly higher in proportion. How do you see that?
You put it correctly. We do not know it! The numbers are supposed to be higher, but we don’t know for sure. There are two viruses in Italy. A journalist from the newspaper “La Repubblica” referred to a very different family life in Italy, where people spend a lot of time together and can thus infect each other easier.
Perhaps the country’s health system is not quite as well positioned as ours. I do not know. Lombardy is listed as one of the worst industrial regions when comparing air pollution, pollution, and other parameters. I have published about air pollution in China. In those studies, there are always comparisons between China and the subway in New York and [the Italian province of] Lombardy.
Now one can ask: Are the numbers wrong in Italy, are they nine days ahead of us in the epidemic? What do we know, how many are tested? How long have the tests been available? You can look at these growth curves and see where you stand. It is still growing with us at the moment. But how big is the dark number of infected people in Italy? If their number is a hundred times higher, the death rate is the same as usual.
How would you assess the situation in China, from where this virus and the disease it caused originated? This is now often mentioned as an example of how well this could be managed.
Such infections, including influenza, often come from China. There are certain reasons for this with influenza. The virus arises from an explosive mixture of viruses from pigs, birds and humans. This is not the case now, and yet the new virus emanates from China because viruses arise from population density.
Ebola always stayed in the jungle until mobility came: travelling, ships, trains, mobility to the weekly markets and schools. And then Ebola was suddenly found in three countries. Mobility is the cause. China had to react at New Year, as hundreds of thousands would have travelled there. That was certainly a problem.
There are two infection rates: in Wuhan City it is ten times higher than in the surrounding area. There is a difference between city and country. Why? That comes from the population density, the air pollution, the density in the apartments. In the case of China, air pollution is never mentioned, caused by industries which is still partly in the cities.
When I was in Beijing two years ago, the severity of the air pollution also depended on the time of day and the wind. People in China all have a cough. This is called Beijing Cough. This is a cough because they already have lungs damaged by air pollution. But it is not caused by viruses, but dust particles. That is certainly a factor that I have never read about anywhere. But I was in China and I wrote a paper about it.
In addition, one has to say: there are thousands of people living in skyscrapers, and the skyscrapers are close together. It’s like a village of 10,000 people in a small block. If they all go out, there is a risk of infection. But inside, the risk of infection in the rooms is, of course, gigantic. Interiors are much more contagious than fresh air outside. The curfew can actually have a negative impact. We cannot compare ourselves to China. Smog, population density and the like, China has a different structure. It is not like that here.
So the curfew that is being mentioned more and more…
Yes, that’s what I’m talking about. It’s the only thing I’m afraid of. It is wrong! That’s why I’m speaking out. That is the only thing where one can still put the genie back in the bottle. The other things have already happened, why should I get upset? We need air and sun, air dilutes the viruses and the sun with UV-light kills them. But no curfew! You don’t get infected on the street!
Otherwise, I hope for quick tests. But they are difficult to make. You have to go through a validation, check whether it can perform as required. As far as I know, the SARS-Corona 2 tests has not been validated, not really checked. The Chinese even corrected the test themselves. It is also difficult to make. The staff must be able to do this.
You also warn of scaremongering, as you said in interviews. In your view, what role do the media play in this?
I think we’ve had a new situation for a couple of years now. This was not the case with SARS-Corona 1. The new thing is the way young people get information from each other. That changes our world. At the moment everyone is being virologically educated. I think that is fine and good. Washing hands is also a good thing to do in the future. Sneezing into the elbows was something I introduced in Zurich ten years ago. I think that’s all good.
But the fact that one reports the individual deaths and the number of infected people without reference, today 16 dead, today 1,000 more infected, creates fears. We are presented with numbers that are frightening. They do not put them in relation to other numbers. Then my taxi driver tells me that he will perish if he has to close his business, and might as well hang himself. You have to put that into consideration as well. I am not an economist. I only hear the voice of the people. They all say: Do something! I just want to prevent the curfew.
What do you advocate? What alternatives do you see and what can individuals do who do not necessarily want to follow this scare campaign?
I was asked on TV what I thought about old people going for a walk. I can only say: Yes, they should do it. Fresh air is good, that dilutes; anyone can imagine that. The second thing that’s good about it is the sun. Ultraviolet light kills viruses. This is good in children’s playgrounds; it is good for children when they do sports outside. It’s good outside! Being more outside is the best.
What remains to be done is face masks. Viruses are small and can penetrate many things. A mouth guard protects against droplet infection – that’s what it’s called. Why should you keep a distance of 1.5 meters? For that reason only.
The virus alone doesn’t travel that far. The virus sits on the droplets of saliva. When I go shopping with a chic scarf, I put my scarf over my mouth and nose, do my shopping, don’t talk too much, then go out and pull the scarf down – everyone should do that! [National team football coach] Jogi Löw did that on television a few days ago: Whenever he spoke to someone, he pulled a small black scarf from his neck to over his mouth and then back down – but not high enough. He should have protected his nose too.
It is important to isolate and protect the old. Then fresh air and UV as much as possible. Furthermore, open kindergartens and schools instead of plunging the young families into chaos. Schools are the best place to put them all together and where you know how the infection chain works. You can control that and you can react. Young people all go out to eat ice cream today. No, they have to drink something hot! That doesn’t get through.
And under no circumstances a curfew! People should go to restaurants, at their own risk. When the weather is nice, you can’t shut people in. I hear that in the family: Where should the children go in nice weather? You can only do that for a week, or at most two. Immunity also has to be built up, only contact allow that.
You wrote a book about viruses as the “superpower of life”. Is that a very dangerous superpower, as it now seems to some? I recently read Richard Preston’s fact-based thriller Hot Zone about the Ebola virus. What are viruses, if you can briefly describe them?
The book is meant differently, it is not about the great dangers. Viruses belong to our life, like microorganisms and bacteria. They have been longer around in the world than we have. Viruses are so flexible and adaptable, and so innovative. They helped make us. I place them at the bottom or very early in evolution.
What we’re seeing right now is evolution in fast motion. Viruses are the strongest and fastest evolving elements in the world. They are also the largest population in the world: 10 to the power of 33. The number is much higher than the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on beaches. This huge number of viruses in principle does not make you sick. There are only around 250 viruses that can potentially make you ill. The illness is caused by human parameters.
In this case it is certainly the case and it will come more often. If you lock people in their living room, the virus does not perish, but rather goes over to dogs and cats. It always finds a way out. We can’t stop that. The virus will stay with us and will not go away. That is my forecast.
There are Zika viruses. There is the West Nile fever virus that spread from New York to San Francisco in five years, from a single bird that fell dead from the sky in New York. Viruses are so very adaptable and changeable.
The coronavirus is not the worst, because it has a correction system like humans, something like Tipp-Ex for the genome. The virus is so big that if it mutated too much, it would self-destruct.
The viruses are almost a species, not just a type. The vaccination will therefore certainly not be easy. They may also be our saviors. I am currently writing a new book about the viruses we know as bacteriophages, that can kill bacteria. They do that when they multiply. Then maybe they will form an alliance with us to fight multi-resistant germs. That will be our next big challenge.
Thank you very much for the interview.
Prof. Dr. Karin Mölling, born in 1943, is an internationally renowned virologist and AIDS researcher. Until 2008 she was director of the Institute for Medical Virology at the University of Zurich. She also headed virus diagnostics at the Cantonal Hospital in Zurich. Karin Mölling has been researching AIDS since the 1980s. She conducted clinical vaccination studies and developed a new type of AIDS therapy. In 2007 she received the Swiss-Award, which recognizes outstanding Swiss personalities. In 2018 she was awarded the 1st Class Cross of Merit of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Tilo Gräser, born in 1965, works as an editor and correspondent for RIA Novosti Germany/Sputniknews. He previously worked for various media and as a press officer. His focus is on politics, social affairs and history.
The interview was originally published by Sputnik Deutschland, republished as Creative Commons 4.0 by the online magazine Rubikon. Translated by Terje Maloy.