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Five days is long enough for a coronavirus quarantine, says Germany’s top virologist

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Germany’s top virologist thinks the standard two-week coronavirus quarantine period is far too long.

Research shows people are no longer infectious after five days, so that should be the limit of the quarantine period, Christian Drosten, the head of virology at Berlin’s Charité hospital, said in a Tuesday podcast published by the broadcaster NDR.

Drosten said it was important for quarantines not to turn into effective lockdowns. “It’s no use having all kinds of school classes, all kinds of workplaces, under weeks-long quarantine,” he said, explaining that shorter quarantines would prove more palatable to the public.

Germany’s answer to the U.S.’s Anthony Fauci—at least, in terms of pandemic celebrity—made the recommendation shortly before Health Minister Jens Spahn ruled out the need for another nationwide lockdown of the sort seen in the early stages of the pandemic.

That’s not to say new lockdowns of some kind definitely won’t be needed—case numbers continue to rise in the states of Baden-Wuerttemberg, Bavaria, and Bremen—but Spahn said Wednesday that outbreaks could be handled regionally.

“We can go into autumn and winter with confidence,” Spahn said, adding that the virus was much better understood now than it was in March.

According to Drosten, the five-day quarantine period he is recommending should not be “wasted” on tests to confirm the COVID-19 diagnosis. Instead, he said, there should be tests after the quarantine to see whether the individual was indeed infected, and whether the person is still infectious.

Mask debate

Drosten also held forth on other issues relating to the pandemic, including the utility of masks and reports that have emerged of people being reinfected.

The doctor said “ill-fitting” masks don’t stop the aerosol spread of the coronavirus—there is increasing scientific consensus that exhaled air is a major infection vector—but he insisted that masks do hinder the virus’s spread, particularly if widely worn.

He dismissed as “attention-grabbing” a recent study in Hong Kong that confirmed the reinfection of a 33-year-old man with the novel coronavirus. Drosten said such cases were “rarities” that should not be interpreted as bad signs for the development of a vaccine, and he argued that they likely have no impact on the spread of the pandemic due to lower virus concentrations on reinfection.

Drosten’s podcast is extremely popular, and this was the first episode following a break of a couple of months. The virologist said he had taken only two weeks’ vacation during that time, with the rest being spent working on the development of faster coronavirus tests.

The doctor built his career on the study of coronaviruses, developing the first diagnostic test for SARS back in 2003. Now he finds himself regularly advising the German government and the public on SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Drosten’s role in advising the government has led to his receiving death threats. “For many Germans, I’m the evil guy who is crippling the economy,” he said in an April interview with the Guardian.

Like many other countries, Germany is seeing a growing movement of people protesting against coronavirus restrictions—though it should be noted that, compared to many other countries, Germany’s restrictions are by this point very light.

A coronavirus-skeptic rally took place in Berlin on the weekend, catching international headlines when some far-right protesters attempted to storm the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament, while brandishing flags with Nazi connotations. Some protesters also carried banners mocking Drosten, as well as Spahn, Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Bill Gates—a frequent target of coronavirus-related conspiracies.

More generally, though, the protest was notable for participants’ refusal to wear masks—a decision that led Berlin’s authorities to announce Tuesday that masks would be obligatory in all open-air gatherings of more than 100 people. Previously, masks were required only on public transport, in shops, and in some school contexts.

Separately, Spahn was spat at and subjected to homophobic taunts when the health minister tried to engage with protesters outside an event in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia on Saturday.

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