I wrote in October about the “German coronavirus mystery”. “Let’s get straight to the point,” I said. “About one in every 1,600 British people has died of Covid-19 since the first confirmed death in early March. Meanwhile, about one in every 10,000 Germans has.”
There were, I said, several factors, but that (pace the headline) there was no need to posit anything mysterious, any secret “immunological dark matter” or hard-to-interpret cultural factors. Instead, I said, “Germany was better prepared and reacted faster than Britain did, and in some ways got lucky, while making some mistakes of its own; it had a political system and, of course, politicians, which were better suited to the moment; and together, those factors added up to keeping several tens of thousand Germans alive.”
Now, though, things have changed. The second wave has been much harder for Germany; Germans are dying at more than three times the rate they were in the first wave. What’s happened?
First, it’s worth noting a couple of things. Yes, Germany is doing worse than it did in the first wave. But it’s still doing better than Britain is in the second wave: our citizens are dying at 1.5 times the rate of theirs. It’s easier to do worse when you did so well the first time; it could simply be an element of reversion to the mean.
Second, along the same lines, their cumulative number of deaths per million people is still less than half of what it is in Britain. Germany may be having problems, but they’re problems that Britain would love to have.
But there does seem to be a real change, and it is something that needs explaining. If it is just a reversion to the mean, that would suggest that Germany’s success the first time was significantly down to luck. It may be, too, that — like us, and many other places — they got complacent after the first wave went away.
I wonder if there’s something else going on as well. One reason Covid-19 is so out of control here is because of the new variant, which seems to spread about 50% better than the old form. But the UK is in a uniquely lucky situation, in that it knows about it.
Britain genuinely leads the world at sequencing the viral genome. Something like 60% of all Covid genetic sequencing worldwide was carried out in the UK. More than that, we got lucky that the new variant happened to have a mutation in exactly one of the three spots on the genome that our PCR tests look at. We simply have a better picture of what various Covid subtypes we have going around.
It may be that Germany has a lot more of the new variant than it realises, and therefore the policies and preparedness that kept a lid on the last wave just aren’t quite effective enough this time. The German government apparently thinks that’s a possibility too, since they’ve ordered a huge improvement in sequencing rates.
Whether that’s the explanation, or part of the explanation, I don’t know. But however you look at it, you’re still twice as likely to have survived the last 12 months if you lived in Germany than if you lived in Britain.