When nonsense circulates, journalists are in a bind. Should they correct the misinformation and thus offer the author a platform? Or should they just ignore the nonsense?
In the case of Wolfgang Wodarg, the latter is unfortunately no longer an option. Wodarg can show expertise – and its content is probably taken more seriously than the contributions of some obviously unqualified strangers who go online (here and here).
Wodarg studied medicine and headed the health office of the city of Flensburg. The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore awarded him a scholarship and he was from 1994 to 2009 for the SPD in the German Bundestag. Now the man explains in two videos on YouTube, which are currently spreading news and social media, that the measures against the new coronavirus Sars-CoV-2 are “scaremongering”.
He claims that coronaviruses have been circulating in the population for a long time, are constantly mutating and have thus always contributed to the numerous deaths during the flu season. It can only be said whether there is a new, dangerous virus if it is clear that more people have died of respiratory infections this winter than usual.
The fact that the virus is now receiving so much attention is solely due to the fact that a test is available that can make researchers important and make money, said Wodarg. This test may not be able to reliably detect the new virus.
Wodarg cleverly argues. Many of his basic statements are correct. He creates trust, even with people who are familiar with medical issues. His conclusions seem conclusive if you stick to your logic. If you take a closer look, you can tell that his videos are to be enjoyed with caution by the YouTube channels in which they were published.
In addition to Wodarg’s theses, one of them spreads conspiracy theories from the imperial milieu, about chemtrails and Satan. The other channel belongs to a freelance filmmaker who wants to use crowdfunding to collect tens of thousands of euros for a film about the “virus craze”.
Three key misconceptions
If it were a quick check on the seriousness of the videos, the text would end here. But that would be thought too short. Anyone who knows Wodarg’s contributions has questions or is already convinced of wrong facts. So back to the content. Wodarg’s reasoning contains three crucial misconceptions:
He pretends that all corona viruses are equally dangerous.
He does not recognize the danger of the pandemic.
He suggests that the new virus is not new.
1. Corona virus is not the same as corona virus
Sars-CoV-2 is actually not the only coronavirus that can affect people and make them sick. Therefore, in contrast to the known viruses, it is referred to as the “new corona virus”.
There are a total of seven corona viruses in humans. Four of them trigger colds and circulate constantly in the population. They spread slowly because a larger number of people are immune. Experts speak of endemic viruses.
The other three human coronaviruses, the Mers, the Sars and the new Sars-CoV-2 coronavirus, on the other hand, are pandemic and more often lead to severe respiratory infections than the common cold viruses. Because humans do not know the viruses, there is no immunity. Depending on how contagious they are, the pathogens can spread exponentially around the world (read more about exponential spread here and below in the text).
Corona virus: Corona viruses are a family of viruses that also include the currently rampant Sars-CoV-2 virus. Since it initially had no name, it was spoken of as a “new type of corona virus” in the first few weeks.
Sars-CoV-2: The WHO gave the novel coronavirus the name “Sars-CoV-2” (“Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome” -Coronavirus-2). By the term is meant the virus that can cause symptoms but does not have to.
Covid-19: The respiratory disease caused by Sars-CoV-2 was named “Covid-19” (Coronavirus Disease-2019). Accordingly, Covid-19 patients are people who carry the Sars-CoV-2 virus and show symptoms.
Wodarg ignores the difference between the viruses and does the calculations: Coronaviruses made up 7 to 15 percent of the viruses present during the flu season and accordingly contributed to the seasonal deaths from respiratory diseases.
If in previous violent flu waves in Germany as in the Winters 2015/2016 and 2017/2018 An estimated 20,000 people had died in Germany, then 2,000 deaths were attributable to corona viruses in these years. They are still a long way from that. So everything is normal!
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), almost 210,000 people worldwide have been proven to be infected with the corona virus (As of March 19, 2020), almost 8800 of them have died so far. This corresponds to a share of approximately four percent (you can read here why the value is significantly lower in Germany).
In fact, a significantly smaller proportion of those infected die to Sars-CoV-2. This is because more people are infected than can be recorded. Many undetected cases have mild or no symptoms. Experts estimate that the actual death rate is 0.3 to 0.7 percent. To determine the exact value, data is currently still missing.
While it is true that coronaviruses agree with about ten percent seasonal respiratory diseases contribute. Severe death-related infections also occur with seasonal coronaviruses, but – like with other colds – are very rare. Comparing the number of deaths from the four relatively harmless, widespread corona viruses in a whole season with the previous deaths from the Sars-CoV-2 pandemic is therefore misleading.
2. An endemic is not a pandemic
Decisive for how dangerous an illness is for society is not only how much it affects the body, but above all at what speed it spreads. A pandemic is characterized by the fact that a large number of people get sick in a short time. This can lead to hospitals reaching their capacity limits.
What can happen if the new corona virus does not slow down can currently be observed in Italy. There is no longer enough space in the hospitals to treat all patients. According to the WHO, almost 3,000 people have died in the country after being infected with the coronavirus (As of March 19, 2020), although it has 20 million fewer inhabitants than Germany.
It does not appear unrealistic that there will be a similar number or more cases in this country. We are still at the beginning of the spread. According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), just under 14,000 people have so far been tested positive for the new corona virus, and 31 have died. Within a week, the number of infected people has increased about five times.
Nevertheless, as Wodarg says, Sars-CoV-2 has so far not really been noticed in the statistics of seasonal respiratory diseases in Germany. However, this will most certainly change if the pandemic is not stopped. To classify what an exponential increase can mean: If we increased five times a week, we would have 8.8 million Sars CoV-2 infected people in four weeks in this country and around 17,500 deaths with a mortality rate of 0.2 percent.
A pandemic can result in as many people being infected and dead within a few weeks as a whole flu season. Germany can wait until it does, or use the remaining time to do everything possible to slow down the new corona virus as much as possible.
3. Sars-CoV-2 is new to humans
There is still the accusation that Sars-CoV is not a new pathogen and that infected people cannot be tested reliably. Wodarg argues that one of the known coronaviruses has mutated and is probably responsible for the current cases of illness. That happens all the time and is nothing unusual.
He is right that viruses often mutate. Laypeople know this from the flu, for which a new vaccine is needed every year because the genetic makeup of the pathogen has changed. However, Sars-CoV-2 did not emerge from one of the four already common corona viruses, but jumped from an animal to humans at the end of 2019.
Experts can analyze the relationship by comparing the genetic material and the mutations contained in it from different viruses (read more about this here). Animals are hosts of numerous corona viruses. It is not the first time that such a virus has passed from animals to humans.
There were similar cases in 2012 with the corona viruses Mers-CoV and Sars-CoV. At that time, the Sars virus also triggered a pandemic based on China about 8000 infected but was more mild than the current Corona outbreak. Incidentally, the Mers virus has not been detected in humans since 2004, although there is a recognized test.
It is not yet clear which animal has transmitted the new Sars CoV-2 virus to humans. Researchers have found corona viruses in bats that are similar to the new pathogen. Armadillos are also discussed as vectors. One thing is certain: the new virus is more similar to these viruses than the four already circulating in humans.
Sars-CoV-2 can be demonstrated, among other things, with a test that virologist Christian Drosten of Charité in Berlin developed based on the established test procedure for the Sars virus. To adapt the test, Drosten looked in the genome of the new corona virus for these typical elements. He then tested his method with samples from 300 patients who were known to be infected with the virus.
“The test does not respond to any other corona or common cold virus other than Sars-CoV-2,” explains Drosten in the “NDR” podcast. The test protocol can be freely accessed by laypersons and experts on the WHO website (here). So far, no recognized specialist has registered fundamental doubts.
Conclusion: There is a corona pandemic
Wodarg demands that more offside and less “mainstream” opinions on the corona virus should be heard. That would be in his interest, but not in the sense of good reporting. If absurd individual opinions are apparently compared with recognized facts on an equal footing, a false impression arises – a so-called false balance or wrong weighting. Avoiding them is particularly important in times of crisis.
It would be dangerous for everyone if the masses believed Wodarg’s statements and took protective measures lightly. Even if there is always a dispute about the usefulness of individual measures and opportunities and risks need to be weighed up precisely. Researchers are currently trying to educate people so that Germany can arm themselves and understand why thorough hand washing and spacers are so important in times of a pandemic – without panicking.
Wodarg did not comment on the criticism of his videos when SPIEGEL asked.