Amid rising political pressure, Germany has been easing its coronavirus lockdown — only to see its virus reproduction rate, or “R,” tick up again.
Now some critics, at home and abroad, are asking whether the two trends are linked.
On Tuesday, Germany’s top public health authority, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), reported the reproduction rate had been above 1 for three consecutive days, since Saturday.
The number indicates whether a pandemic is wearing off. Anything above 1 means that on average, one infected person will pass on the virus to at least one other person. A value below 1 indicates that the spread of the virus is slowing down.
Some media reported this trend with alarm.
“Germany has relaxed more coronavirus lockdown measures despite the country’s rate of infection rising to potentially dangerous levels,” Britain’s Daily Mail wrote on Monday.
However, some experts note that making that connection is not necessarily useful: The reproduction rate depicts not the current situation but reflects a lag of several days stemming from the incubation period, testing, waiting for test results and registrations.
“Today’s reproduction rate refers to infections that occurred over the period between April 28 and May 3,” RKI microbiologist Lars Schaade said Tuesday, ruling out the possibility that Germany’s bustling streets on the weekend from May 8 to May 10 were the cause.
Schaade said that the reproduction rate needs to be carefully analyzed for other reasons as well, and noted that the nominal average number of cases in Germany is still dropping.
Accordingly, “single outbreaks have a stronger impact on the value of the reproduction rate than was previously the case,” he said, adding that recent large outbreaks in slaughterhouses may be partly to blame.
On Monday, the RKI reported that it’s too early to tell “whether the trend of new infections, which has been declining in recent weeks, will continue or whether there will be a renewed increase in the number of cases.”
However, “the increase in the estimated reproduction rate value makes it necessary to observe the development very carefully over the next few days,” it added.
On Saturday, large protests against lockdown measures in several German cities sparked concern among politicians and virologists, as many protestors ignored social distancing guidelines and failed to wear masks.
Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday criticized their behavior and said it was still essential to maintain an appropriate distance from others.
But she also cautioned that it would take two or three weeks before it’s clear whether and how the recent lockdown easing will affect infection numbers in Germany.
In the meantime, she emphasized, prevention is vital. “So keep your distance, cover your mouth and nose. Show consideration for each other,” Merkel said.