Interview: RKI President Wieler: “I still get death threats”

RKI boss Lothar Wieler demands more fairness from critics and explains why the vaccination rate cannot yet be determined exactly.

Lothar Wieler is one of the most important voices in the coronavirus pandemic: The President of the Robert Koch Institute first explained the incidence and R-value to the Germans, then later promoted vaccination like a prayer wheel. Since it became clear that the vaccination quota is significantly higher than previously calculated by the RKI, the criticism of the RKI and its management has become louder and louder. In conversation with our editorial team, Wieler calls for more fairness – and reports from massive threats.

Before the pandemic, hardly anyone knew the RKI. Now you are suddenly controlling the corona policy. Did you ever feel overwhelmed?

Lothar Wieler: Advising the government is our legal mandate and is not unusual. In the pandemic, we naturally came into focus. Due to the massive demands that were placed on us in a short period of time, we as an institute reached our limits – in terms of both personnel and finances.

As the head of the RKI, you were part of the “Caution team” and repeatedly warned of dramatic developments. But the catastrophe never occurred.

cyclist: No, it is not. But I see that as a success of our measures. We now know what can happen if you do too little. It is therefore always regrettable to see that this success is not valued. We were able to prevent the disaster because we took countermeasures. Our recommendations were important guidelines for politics in the federal and state levels.

This has nothing to do with “team caution”, but with my job: As a civil servant, I have sworn that I will serve the people in our country. And as the RKI President, I have the task of protecting and improving people’s health.

The RKI now had to admit that the vaccination rate was underestimated. Why do we only find out now – after the general election?

cyclist: I have to disagree. We have been writing this in our reports for months. From the moment the resident doctors started vaccinating, we were no longer able to record the vaccination rate as precisely as in the vaccination centers.

But only now does the RKI say that the rate was underestimated by up to five percent.

cyclist: A similar number was already in a study report in August. And we can only evaluate the data that is available to us. We first had to observe and assess the delay in reporting by the family doctors and later also by the company doctors. We don’t know exactly which doctor will report in a timely manner. The officially reported dates are the minimum vaccination rate. We can only estimate the actual vaccination rate.

Can’t say exactly what the current rate is?

cyclist: All we can say is that by the end of September, up to 84 percent of adults had been vaccinated at least once and up to 80 percent had been fully vaccinated. We cannot say what the real rate is now, in mid-October.

Can you understand that the health ministers of the federal states are quite angry with the RKI because of this?

cyclist: I share the anger about the reporting problems. But the reporting of the vaccinating bodies is required by law in the Coronavirus Vaccination Ordinance. It must be complete and timely in order to be able to show the progress of vaccination in Germany as accurately and up-to-date as possible. It is unfair to put the blame on the RKI.

What do you want to change?

cyclist: Even before the pandemic, we started work on the electronic reporting system for Demis infection protection. We have been receiving Sars-CoV-2 laboratory reports via Demis since summer 2020, and we want to connect the clinics at the beginning of next year. As soon as all medical practices and hospitals are connected, the vaccination rates could also be recorded.

Also read: Christian Drosten on vaccination quota – virologist defends RKI

Why is this taking so long?

cyclist: It depends on resources, on the many different billing systems, the different interests of doctors, health insurers and clinics, but also on data protection. We have 16 different data protection officers in the countries, some of which have very different assessments of the same situation.

The FDP and the Greens, who are expected to be involved in the next government, are massively critical. The FDP accuses them of being too close to the federal government. In the future, the RKI will no longer be subordinate to the Federal Minister of Health. Is this a good idea?

cyclist: That is too short-sighted. We are a scientifically independent institution. But our job as a federal authority is to advise the Ministry of Health. The close cooperation with the ministry is important for this: If the RKI were completely detached like a Max Planck Institute, we would not have the leverage at all to provide such intensive professional advice on health policy projects.

The Greens accuse you of joint responsibility for the long school closings. They would have viewed children as drivers of infection for too long.

cyclist: We have publicly emphasized that children are not the drivers of the pandemic. Rather, our recommendations are aimed at making schools a safe place and avoiding school closings. It always depends on what is made of our recommendations on site.

The RKI also had to correct the values ​​for the effectiveness of the vaccination, they are now slightly lower. Are there any other values ​​that you will be more precise about in the near future?

cyclist: We didn’t have to correct the data, we optimized the methodology for measuring effectiveness. In general, we can only work with the data that we have. Take the numbers on the vaccination status of hospitalized patients. There is also a delay in reporting. Here you can clearly see the weaknesses in the digitization of the German health system.

With a vaccination rate among adults of around 80 percent, calls for a Freedom Day are getting louder. In what situation can all measures end?

cyclist: The vaccination goal is: at least 85 percent of 12 to 59 year olds and at least 90 percent of over 60 year olds should be fully vaccinated. That has not yet been achieved. But even if these quotas are reached, the basic measures should be carried out until next spring. That means: In as many indoor spaces as possible, distance rules and mask requirements should still apply. The 3G and 2G rules that have already been introduced should also be continued.

We can see in Great Britain what happens if you drop all measures: Here the number of corona deaths has increased massively after Freedom Day.

The RKI remains, the Minister of Health will probably change. Do you have a wish?

cyclist: I have no personal wishes. In the future, however, the Robert Koch Institute should receive the support it needs.

How are you personally? Are you still getting threats?

cyclist: I wish things were more pleasant, but I’m still getting threats. If, for example, it is claimed in the media that I am responsible for closing schools, or if it says somewhere “Wieler demands lockdown instead of freedom”, then the threats – including death threats – increase massively. But that doesn’t prevent me from doing my job.

Should a person succeed in preventing me from doing this by harming me, it would be bitter for me and my family. But the risk doesn’t stop me from doing my duty. As long as I am an official of this state, I will serve it responsibly.

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