The German R0 Coronavirus Experiment – WSJ
Sweden’s resistance to a government-imposed lockdown is widely regarded as Europe’s most daring coronavirus experiment, but now Berlin is giving Stockholm a run for its money. As Germany reopens, there are signs its lockdown hasn’t permanently blocked Covid-19 after all.
German officials fear the disease’s reproduction rate, or R0, has increased since small stores were allowed to reopen on April 20. The Robert Koch Institute, the government’s disease control agency, estimated on Monday that the rate is 1. This means that every infected person on average transmits the virus to another person. A rate greater than one means an exponential increase in infections.
This is important because Berlin is conducting an experiment to find out whether it is possible to reopen an economy in a way that controls R0. Chancellor Angela Merkel, who holds a doctorate in chemistry, became an internet sensation this month for a press conference in which she soberly explained to the Germans why they need to remove the rate and why R0 would be the benchmark for government reopening policies. Two days before the lockdown began to ease, RKI estimated the rate to be 0.8.
This approach and Germany’s aggressive test and traceability program at the start of the epidemic has been touted as a triumph of science-based politics unlike a certain US president. Yet he is plagued by problems. One, as the RKI acknowledges in its daily briefings, is that no one can know in real time what the reproduction rate is. RKI’s figure is only an estimate. Any leader who chooses R0 as a political target will fly half blind.
Worse yet, it is probably not possible to permanently remove R0 below 1 and have a working economy at the same time. To date, Germany has experienced one of the lowest death rates in Europe relative to population size thanks to the relatively rapid rollout of testing and contact tracing in Berlin earlier in the pandemic and strict locking. The upward drift in the reproductive rate now suggests that these measures may not have stopped the disease as much in its tracks as they have delayed the inevitable – and at enormous cost.
Most politicians in most countries change the explanation of why they blocked their savings. Originally, they said they wanted to slow the spread of Covid-19 to ease the pressure on hospitals, but increasingly they seem to want to stop it altogether. (New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also invokes an R0 of 1 before his state can reopen.) Berlin may provide a caveat as to whether this is possible as the lockdowns loosen and, therefore, whether the blockages have been worth their immense human value and economic cost.
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Appeared in the print edition of April 29, 2020 under the name ‘.’