The Scapegoat Science and Politics Collide in the Battle against COVID-19
By Markus Feldenkirchen, Jan Friedmann, Johann Grolle, Marc Hujer, Martin Knobbe and Dirk Kurbjuweit
German politician Karl Lauterbach knows exactly what virologist Christian Drosten is going through right now. "The attacks against him have become personal. His critics are trying to discredit and destroy his good reputation," he says.
Lauterbach, a member of the center-left Social Democrat Party in the German parliament, the Bundestag, is himself a scientist. He knows first-hand just how awful political publicity can be. He's experiencing it again right now, because he's skeptical about how quickly Germany is relaxing its restrictions on public life due to the coronavirus.
Last Tuesday, Lauterbach found a package on his desk inside the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament. Inside, there was a coronavirus test kit labeled "positive." A note read: "Drink this and you'll be immune." Lauterbach said he found this to be "macabre" and turned the package over to the police.
Christian Drosten, who's not used to getting hate mail, received a similar package. Drosten has spent his career in science, which is nowhere near as emotionally charged or hysterical as politics, especially during a crisis.
But thanks to the coronavirus, Drosten, the director of the Institute of Virology at Berlin's Charité University Hospital, has himself become a political figure. His expertise and advice have been shaping government policy in matters of life and death. And in this role, Drosten has made a lot of people unhappy.
"Should I Be Afraid? I Don't Think So."
Last Monday, the German tabloid BILD attacked Drosten and questioned his methods in a study published by his institute. Then, on Tuesday, the package arrived. On Wednesday, Drosten seemed unperturbed in an interview with DER SPIEGEL. "Should I be afraid?" he asked. "I don't think so."
These days, the coronavirus is bringing together two worlds, two systems that otherwise exist more or less independently of one another: science and politics.
To be sure, these two fields have long overlapped. Weapons technology, in particular, is one area where political leaders have traditionally used researchers' findings. Today, many branches of politics come with their own scientific advisory councils, which under normal circumstances provide expertise at regular, comfortable intervals.
But what's happening now feels like its own kind of experiment. Spurred on by a deadly virus, politicians require scientific findings to do their jobs -- and they need them quickly. They need them to make incredibly important decisions, ones that affect people's health, prosperity and freedom.
Whether the results of a study are correct or false is no longer merely an academic question. In the coronavirus crisis, the answer can have consequences for millions of people.
This makes many people feel uncomfortable. Not everyone wants to accept it. And doubt and skepticism certainly have their place. In a democracy, everything should be subject to debate.
But there are also the conspiracy theories that purport, for instance, that Bill Gates created the coronavirus and lead far too often down a path of hate.
Christian Drosten, for his part, has become one such hate figure. It's obvious every time he reads his emails. "In the meantime," he says, "the hate mail has become normal. Most of the time, the messages are ridden with spelling errors. Some of the senders are truly pitiful, others highly narcissistic, malicious and manipulative." He took legal action over a poster that compared him to the Nazi-era concentration camp doctor Josef Mengele.
A demonstrator holds up a sign criticizing public health officials: "The Robert Koch Institute, WHO, Drosten: Lie-ologists."Foto: SEAN GALLUP / GETTY IMAGES
This kind of hate is a patchwork of people's various anxieties: fear of an economic crash, distrust of the government, but also a deep aversion to Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom Drosten advises. This has led some to blame him for the lockdown.
Drosten, the scientist, thus became a symbolic figure for Merkel's politics, a scapegoat. But this overstates his role -- and Merkel's, for that matter, since it's Germany's 16 governors who determine their states' response to the crisis. Reality, however, plays only a minor role in some circles. Instead, madness reigns.
Scientists Change Their Minds
Drosten's career has taken a very sharp turn. In a matter of weeks, he went from being largely unknown to the public to being its most prominent target for projecting everything from hope to anxiety during perhaps the greatest crisis ever to face post-war Germany.
He studied chemical engineering and biology and, later, human medicine. Since 2017, he has been the director of the Institute of Virology at Berlin's Charité University Hospital.
His most recent research has focused on measuring age-related virus loads and just how infectious children are. It's one of the most pressing questions at the moment, as it will determine when, and under what conditions, children will be allowed to return to daycare centers and go back to school. No other issue penetrates the lives of parents so deeply. The knowledge of children's level of infectiousness will decide whether parents can go back to work, how difficult their situation at home will be and whether their children will have a chance at a good life or not.
In order to find answers to these questions, it's necessary to know how big a role children are playing in the spread of the virus. If they're spreading the virus in their families, then schools could easily become sources of new chains of infections. If not, then it's about time that classes began again.
On March 11, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer invited Christian Drosten and Lothar Wieler, the head of the Robert Koch Institute, Germany's public health authority, to his ministry. Around 20 government employees were there too. The group was fed Bavarian snacks and a three-hour discussion ensued. Drosten voiced skepticism about the closure of schools and daycares, because this would make it more difficult for doctors and caregivers with children to go to work.
But then Drosten read a study from the United States that had investigated the effectiveness of closing schools during the Spanish flu pandemic. After that, he changed his mind, like he often does when he comes across new information. For him, it's perfectly normal.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 23/2020 (May 30, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.
The following day, Wieler and Drosten were at the Chancellery, where Merkel was having a meeting with state leaders. Unlike the day before, Drosten emphasized the benefits of closing schools. Some politicians viewed this as evidence of him flip-flopping and were annoyed. Markus Söder, the governor of Bavaria, then announced that schools in his state would close. The other governors were quick to follow suit.
Now, Germany is debating the opposite question: When and how can schools and daycares be reopened? But it's still unclear just how infectious children are.
Drosten wanted to gain clarity on the subject, so he conducted a study in which he measured the concentration of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the throats of infected children. The result: "Children can be just as infectious as adults." He published the study as a so-called preprint, a preliminary version that has not yet been subjected to formal peer review. The point was for other scientists to read and criticize it -- not to declare a level of certainty.
The BILD tabloid then collected quotes from other publications that had been critical of Drosten's study, pointing to the low number of children involved, for example. The article itself, however, relied on some dubious approaches, including the fact that the author gave Drosten only an hour to respond before publication.
In his daily podcast, Drosten had this to say on the topic of children's infectiousness: "We don't know nothing." And: "Now it's up to politicians to do something."
One answer came this week from Winfried Kretschmann. The governor of Baden-Württemberg is a devout Catholic who also believes in science. He used to be a biology and chemistry teacher, and when he goes hiking, he's known to identify plants alongside the trail or talk about insects.
As other states' governments were allowing daycares to reopen, Kretschmann waited for the results of a scientific study that his advisers had initiated one month earlier. A group of university hospitals had examined 2,500 children. According to the University of Heidelberg, which took the lead on the study, the goal was to create "a scientific basis for political decision-making."
But the scientists' concept of time didn't align with the politicians'. Kretschmann, normally a cautious and thoughtful man, put pressure on the researchers conducting the study last week to deliver results. On the one hand, scientists know that you can't force these things. But the parents of daycare-age children are really having a tough time. "The pressure is immense," Kretschmann said.
A day before the government's weekly press conference, the Heidelberg University Hospital presented the desired preliminary results of the COVID-19 study in Baden-Württemberg. "Due to the high urgency" of the governor's request, a hospital spokeswoman said, an interim result was being provided "with emphasis on the fact that final results were still pending."
Shortly thereafter, Kretschmann made a forceful public statement that "children are not only sick less often than adults, they're also infected less often." And: "We can rule out that children are particular drivers of the infectiousness of this virus." The results, Kretschmann said, "do not stand in the way of the further relaxation of the restrictions."
A demonstration against school closuresFoto: BJÖRN KIETZMANN / ACTION PRESS
The results of the study were only preliminary, yet Kretschmann used them to proclaim concrete measures. He needed the results in order to be able to "do" something, as Drosten so nonchalantly said on his podcast. In that one word lies the greatest difference between the two systems.
"Politicians have to act, whereas scientists have to describe and explain," the philosopher Julian Nida-Rümelin recently wrote. He's familiar with both fields. He has worked as a scientist and spent two years as a state minister for culture under former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
Science doesn't usually have many real-world consequences as long as the results of research remain inside scientific circles, where uncertainty is seen as a reason to continue with the research. Mistakes may be embarrassing, but they are rarely a big deal. A new paper is published and the record is set straight.
When politicians make mistakes, however, they can have far-reaching consequences, both for citizens and the politicians themselves, who risk not being re-elected. That's why they prefer to base their decisions, and their actions, on certainties. But these are hard to come by, especially in the case of COVID-19.
Step by step, researchers are being forced to explore completely new territory under the watchful eye of a nervous public. There have been more than 20,000 papers published on SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, according to the World Health Organization. And every one of them claims to contain new information. No wonder that what was considered fact yesterday can prove to be a mistake today -- not because a researcher's opinion has changed, but because new information has come to light.
The Bonn-based virologist Hendrik StreeckFoto: MARCEL KUSCH / DPA
But politicians have to take that preliminary information and "do" something. After all, the virus isn't waiting around for certainties to emerge. On the contrary, it would spread relentlessly if we let it.
The speed at which new scientific discoveries present themselves has been a source of consternation between scientists and politicians. It's a slow process, often turbulent and meandering, and progress can't be forced. Political decisions, however, especially in times of crisis, make no room for delays. That's why decisions are being made based on preliminary results. Just look at Baden-Württemberg.
Compared to the normal pace of scientific research, the coronavirus pandemic has already led to an unprecedented acceleration. Like no virus before, researchers identified the SARS-CoV-2 virus, sequenced it and, supervised by Christian Drosten, developed a way to test for it. In record time, new vaccines have been developed that are already in clinical trials. And yet, for politicians, even this is too slow.
Concerns are mounting that science simply can't go any faster. Whereas researchers would otherwise spend years planning clinical trials, they are now being prepared in a matter of weeks. Scientific journals have already drastically shortened their peer review and publication processes. And because this is still too slow for many researchers, a large amount of papers on COVID-19 are being immediately published on preprint servers.
This does not always guarantee the necessary diligence. There is a growing danger of unfinished results, falsified data or studies tainted by conflicts of interest circumventing academic filters and being made public.
And the political public is way different than the scientific public. As long as conflicts remain academic, the drama can be kept in check. People who run into criticism or blame here can still go grocery shopping without being publicly shamed. Who's going to recognize a scientist, after all?
Conflict of Interest
What it means to be in the political spotlight is something that Christian Drosten and other researchers are currently experiencing. This kind of prominence can be both a blessing and a curse.
German parliamentarian and scientist Karl LauterbachFoto: KAY NIETFELD / DPA
Drosten sought out the broader public on his own. At first, he spoke daily, now twice a week, on his podcast about the latest developments from the world of scientific institutes and laboratories. Sober, patient, at times with mind-numbing meticulousness, he broke down newly published studies from China, Iceland or the U.S. And when Drosten, the expert, spoke of "rates of attack," "confidence intervals" and "specificity," millions of people listened to him.
In addition, he is active on Twitter and appears on talk shows and in TV interviews. In no time at all, Drosten has become a star. The celebrity magazine Gala wrote about him. And BILD stalked him.
But because he didn't just become a star, but also a political figure, he's now at the mercy of the political public. This is important in a democracy. Everything must be able to be criticized, doubted and debated.
The pitfalls inherent to this public were something the Bonn-based virologist Hendrik Streeck experienced first-hand. In early April, he published the preliminary results of his field study, "Covid-19 Case Cluster Study," which he conducted in the town of Gangelt in Heinsberg, a district in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia that was home to one of the first outbreaks of the virus in Germany.
Streeck presented the study along with the state's governor, Armin Laschet, who had argued for restrictions on public life to be relaxed more quickly and felt validated by the study's results. The same day, Christian Drosten took part in a press conference at the Science Media Center and voiced reservations about Streeck's study.
Drosten cited, among other things, statistical inconsistencies. For instance, he said "the distribution to households" had not been clarified. He also criticized the rapid publication of the study in a provisional form. "Even if it hasn't been subjected to peer review, a summary must at least be presented in manuscript form before giving it to the broader public and to politicians. Otherwise you have a situation like right now, where you simply don't know anything."
The magazine Capital accused Streeck of following a script from the agency Storymachine in the publication of the Heinsberg study. Kai Diekmann, the former editor-in-chief of the BILD, is a co-founder of Storymachine.
Criticism of Streeck grew and his impartiality as a scientist was called into question. Then the podcast he did on scientific questions about coronavirus research for the German public broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk got cancelled.
On May 4, Streeck published the final results of the Heinsberg study, which closely mirrored the preliminary results. Though there were no more scientific reservations, the study continued to be known as the "controversial Heinsberg study." The relationship with Storymachine was a mistake, Streeck now says. During a parliamentary hearing for the state health committee in North Rhine-Westphalia, Streeck said the whole thing "had gone poorly." When it came time to present the final results of the study, Laschet was not in attendance.
"Politicians also exploit science," says Lauterbach, the member of parliament who is also an epidemiologist and healthcare economist. He studied at Harvard and spent 35 years as a professor at the University of Cologne.
As an example, Lauterbach cites the expert testimonies in the German parliament that are an integral part of the lawmaking process. There, the political parties generally invite scientists from whom they can expect support. "Scientists are often used by politicians to provide a basis for the positions they already hold." That's likely what Laschet did with Streeck.
Before Lauterbach became a politician and got elected to the Bundestag in 2005, he was often invited to testify himself as an expert, usually by the Social Democrats or the Greens. For the most part, he found the process frustrating. "That's why I found it more effective to get involved directly in politics. This way, I can assert the scientific arguments without anything getting in my way."
Baden-Württemberg Governor Winfried KretschmannFoto: MARC GRUBER / IMAGO-IMAGES
He wishes more scientists would get into politics. And he wishes that scientists' perspectives would play a bigger role in politics, especially when it comes to climate change. "We won't overcome future crises if we don't learn to rely more on science," he says.
Such reliance has cropped up before, back in 2007, when the moniker "climate chancellor" was born.
In February 2007, scientists working at the behest of the United Nations published alarming figures about global warming. That March, Chancellor Angela Merkel pressed her colleagues at the European Union during a summit in Brussels on climate targets, which at the time seemed halfway ambitious. From then on, she was known as the climate chancellor. As a former scientist, she trusted the numbers and used them to shape policy.
But in 2008, other numbers began to appear that were also alarming. The world descended into a financial crisis and Merkel decided that she couldn't burden Germans with higher energy prices while the economy was collapsing. She didn't think anyone would get behind such a move.
Here, too, lies one of the significant differences between the two systems. In science, it's the facts that count. In politics, it's majorities. Those in power need approval for their decisions, which is why most issues also involve questions of power. A politician who doesn't find a majority loses their power.
Merkel's a Politician Too
Once Merkel viewed the climate issue as a threat to her grip on power, she put it on the backburner. That's why people should be careful not to overestimate the fact that she is a scientist herself and once worked as a physicist at a research institute. She is very good at explaining what consequences various reproduction numbers with the coronavirus have. She, of course, listens to Lothar Wieler, the director of the Robert Koch Institute. She also takes Christian Drosten's advice into consideration. But in the end, she will always decide as a politician. And this means that she will always wonder what her decisions will mean for her grip on power.
The relaxation of restrictions on public life are apparently happening too quickly for her taste, but since she doesn't have the power to tell the governors what to do, she's not willing to make a huge deal of it. Instead, she says: You're responsible for this. A scientist who was convinced of their position would be more apt to say: This is where I stand, and I can't help it.
For all the differences between the two systems, politics and science have worked together quite well during the crisis. A country-by-country comparison by the Deep Knowledge Group revealed as much. In April, data analysts from the London-based thinktank compared more than a hundred countries' crisis management during the pandemic. Germany was the only European country to be ranked in the top 10, above South Korea, Japan and China.
Early on in the pandemic, Germany managed to identify flare-ups of new infections comparatively well and trace the chains of infection, thereby saving precious time. Christian Drosten takes credit for his role in that, particularly because he had been one of the first to sound the alarm about the coronavirus in Germany.
Karl Lauterbach, who speaks to Drosten a lot these days, has encouraged Drosten to push forward despite all the attacks. "If he continues to be open, clear and transparent with his scientific results and doesn't distort them, he'll be fine. He's an honest person and a top-notch scientist."