Virus mutations are a natural process that cannot be avoided, but which can pose all kinds of problems for mankind. Even if viruses do not necessarily become more dangerous as a result of a mutation, such changes can, for example, mean that common tests no longer work or that drugs and vaccinations lose their effectiveness.
So that the occurrence of mutations is not only known after they have spread, but in advance, scientists can randomly sequence virus samples. They examine the genome strands of a specific virus, determine how exactly it differs from its predecessors – and whether it has mutated.
In countries like Great Britain this procedure is already used extensively. For this reason, among other things, the mutation, which is currently circulating particularly in England, could be detected early. For a long time, around every fifteenth positive corona test has been analyzed in this way. In Germany, on the other hand, it is only around one test out of 900.
This also means that while the British are at least aware that the more contagious variant of the virus is already dominating them, it is still completely unclear in this country how far the mutation has already spread. That is why the European disease agency ECDC urgently advises sequencing more now in order to detect and contain the spread of the new mutation at an early stage.
“We are really miserable in Germany when it comes to the molecular monitoring of the coronavirus,” explained the head of virology at the University of Freiburg, Hartmut Hengel, in an interview with Tagesschau: “We sequence without representative sample collection at the level of a developing country.” it is urgently time “that Mr. Spahn gets molecular surveillance up and running in Germany.”
Intervention by Spahn had “become inevitable”
The whole world now benefits from the British screening system because it can take appropriate action. In addition, it is good news that, thanks to the precise knowledge of the sequence of the mutation, Pfizer has already been able to assure that the vaccine developed by the pharmaceutical company will also remain effective against the mutated variant.
Even before the outbreak of the corona pandemic – on November 19, 2019 – health experts had sent an urgent letter to Health Minister Jens Spahn urging him to press ahead with virus sequencing. The initiative came from the Society for Virology and the German Society for Hygiene and Microbiology.
In the letter available to NDR, WDR and Süddeutscher Zeitung it says: “Ministerial intervention” by Mr. Spahn has “become inevitable”. The virologists sounded the alarm that “a considerable part of the currently appointed expert laboratories can no longer fulfill their tasks”. In the event of a possible outbreak of a pandemic, “the possibilities of molecular surveillance would be lacking.”
According to research, Spahn has left the request unanswered to this day
According to information from NDR, WDR and SZ, the Minister of Health has not yet responded to the letter. A spokesman for the Ministry of Health told the Tagesschau that although they had replied, a meeting with the specialist societies had not yet taken place. But it is “still planned”. The President of the Society for Hygiene, Georg Häcker, did not want to comment on the Tagesschau’s request.
The main reason why sequencing hardly takes place in Germany is its high cost. The complex procedure costs between 50 and 150 euros per sample. Sequencing is already taking place at many universities, it says in the letter, but only to a modest extent because the funds are lacking: “The funding of many national reference centers and consulting laboratories by the Federal Ministry of Health has for many years been completely inadequate, opaque and stereotyped through lump sums. “
On Tuesday, January 5th, the federal and state governments finally decided, in addition to other measures, that in future new variants should be identified more quickly in this country too through increased sequencing. The Federal Ministry of Health under the leadership of Jens Spahn is now to implement this accordingly.