A leading German virologist on Monday downplayed fears about the new mutation of the coronavirus spreading through the UK — and questioned Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s claim that the strain is 70 percent more infectious, according to reports.
“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,” Christian Drosten said, the Daily Mail reported.
“Then it enters politics and politicians use this figure and the media takes it up. Suddenly there’s a figure out there — 70 percent — and nobody even knows what it means,” he told Deutschlandfunk radio, the UK outlet reported.
“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,” the director of virology at Berlin’s Charite Hospital added.
Drosten also said it was unclear whether the spike in cases in Kent and the South East was even caused by the new strain, N501Y.
He said the new variant might simply have “come to the surface” during an uptick in cases that 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 said, the Daily Mail reported.
The virology expert noted that British scientists had not mentioned with any certainty that the new strain was more infectious.
“If you want to know if a virus is more transmissible, you’d have to look at pairs of people who were infected. You’d have to see who infected whom and how long it took,” Drosten said.
Germany is one of more than a dozen European countries that have shut their borders to flights from the UK due to the mutant strain — but Drosten said the new variant was likely already in his country.
“We know that it’s already in Italy, in Holland, in Belgium, in Denmark, even in Australia,” he said, adding that he was “not so worried” about the mutated bug and noting that none of those countries had reported a surge in related cases.
“I am open to new scientific insights, and in science there are always surprises, but I am everything but worried in this respect,” Drosten told the German outlet, according to the UK’s Guardian.
On Sunday, the Dutch government confirmed that a case of the new mutation had been diagnosed in the country at the beginning of December, suggesting it may already have been present there for some time, the outlet reported.
So far, it does not appear to be spreading as rapidly in the Netherlands as in the UK, Ab Osterhaus, emeritus professor of virology at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, told the Algemeen Dagblad, the Guardian reported.
“In areas where the number of infections rise particularly fast, it tends to get linked to the mutation,” Ostarhaus said. “But I don’t know at all yet whether that’s justified.”
Experts stress that there was no evidence that vaccines — including the Pfizer-BioNTech shot being deployed in Britain — would not protect against the new variant, Reuters reported.
The discovery of the new strain came just months before vaccines are expected to be widely available as the pandemic has killed about 1.7 million people worldwide and more than 67,000 in Britain.
The countries that have suspended travel from the UK include Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jordan, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Spain and Switzerland.