If the occasion had not been so bitter, the performances of the Lothar Wieler can award a remarkable cabaret quality. At the peak of the pandemic, the head of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) sat week after week in the federal press conference and tried to bring the virus closer to the Germans. And as clearly as possible. The virus, he then explained, was like “a bulging balloon that we have to keep under water together”. Or, another week, Germany is like a car that is traveling much too fast on a winding mountain road, “then the emergency brake won’t help anymore”. When the number of infections exploded, he stated: “This bucket of water has been poured out. We can’t get this water in there anymore.” And when he felt his warnings weren’t getting enough heed, he concluded, “I’ve been a parrot for a long time.”
Lothar Wieler really gave everything. Not just rhetorically.
On Wednesday it was announced that Wieler’s time at the head of the RKI would end on April 1 – “at his own request”, according to the official announcement. It was initially unclear how voluntarily this withdrawal really took place. One thing is certain: Lothar Wieler has gone through a period that he probably could not have imagined when he took office in March 2015.
Made famous overnight
One of the side effects of this pandemic is that it has catapulted people into the center of public attention who didn’t really choose to be. Virologists, epidemiologists, and intensive care physicians were suddenly no longer dealing only with specialist audiences, but with the entire spectrum of a population that was facing a crisis that had never been seen before. Demanded the answers that science often couldn’t provide – because that Coronavirus even changed the parameters again and again. Who expected a generally understandable language, where the experts were used to technical terms. In retrospect, the convergence of these two worlds was not easy for either side. But no one felt this conflict as much as Lothar Wieler.
The sometimes curious metaphors were his attempt to build a bridge between science and the rest of the world. Wieler wanted to be a translator, someone who explains and enlightens, who helps to find the right way to deal with this virus. The question of whether he enjoys it or not is not relevant, he once explained it himself, he simply sees it as his duty. In other words, someone has to do the job.
Things didn’t always go the way he imagined.
That was, for example, the media. Wieler, a microbiologist and veterinarian and an expert on zoonotic pathogens, has found more than once that newspaper reports focus on the wrong questions – for example when there is speculation about how harmonious his relationship with the current Federal Minister of Health actually is. But there was also the polarization in society, which intensified massively during the Corona crisis. Wieler became an enemy of Corona deniers, he was insulted and hostile, not only on the Internet. He received death threats, he reported. Christian Drosten, the chief virologist at the Berlin Charité, felt the same way – after which he massively restricted his media appearances. But Wieler sat down again in the federal press conference, week after week after week. Somebody has to do the job.
Once Wieler lost patience
The head of the RKI is formally subordinate to the Federal Minister of Health. That was at the beginning of the pandemic Jens Spahn (CDU), at whose side Wieler made countless appearances to provide information about the virus. A lot has been written about Spahn’s crisis management, and in summary one can say that not every phase went as a scientist like Lothar Wieler would have recommended. Nevertheless, the dutiful Wieler tried to keep his composure. When Spahn remembered in November 2021 that he should not have closed the vaccination centers the previous summer, Lothar Wieler sat next to him at the federal press conference with a deliberately impassive expression. Looked at his papers, stared straight ahead, looked at his papers again. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t told his minister that the virus was coming back.
Only once, a few days later, did he lose his temper. The incidence figures were a catastrophe, and Lothar Wieler tried to make that somehow understandable in an online session with Saxony’s Prime Minister Michael Kretschmer (CDU). So he calculated how many new infections would mean how many deaths, he said that it could no longer be changed, many people would die. “That’s a clear language,” said Wieler, “but after 21 months I simply can’t bear it anymore that it might not be recognized what I say, among other things, and also many other colleagues.” He couldn’t take it anymore, he said – but of course he continued to take it.
While his relationship with Jens Spahn was tense, mainly because of his inadequate pandemic policy, from Wieler’s point of view, there were problems in his relationship with Spahn’s successor Karl Lauterbach probably more of an interpersonal nature.
So there was a big rift less than two months after Lauterbach took office. The trigger was the shortening of the convalescent status: Due to a communication breakdown, many thousands of people lost their 2G status overnight without warning. Lauterbach and Wieler publicly quarreled over the question of who had not informed whom. It had crashed before. At that time, Wieler’s RKI published recommendations for immediate maximum contact restrictions – apparently contradicting the recommendations that Lauterbach’s freshly appointed expert council had made just two days earlier. Was this maneuver due to political clumsiness or was Wieler consciously seeking a power struggle with Lauterbach? In any case, many in Lauterbach’s house interpreted Wieler’s initiative as an affront to the panel of experts: the head of the RKI was offended because his institute should no longer be solely responsible for pandemic policy, it said.
The RKI, on the other hand, preferred the reading that publication is a normal scientific process: you just publish what needs to be published, that has nothing to do with power politics. It was not easy for Lothar Wieler on any level, not even with politics. But he didn’t make it easy for the others either.
In any case, the relationship between the Federal Minister of Health Lauterbach and his most important official in the pandemic never normalized again: Last year it was said in Berlin that Lauterbach would like to get rid of Wieler, but not in the middle of the Corona crisis. Now it is time. Wieler intends to devote more time to research and teaching in the future, according to the statement on his departure.
The Federal Minister of Health thanked him enthusiastically for his achievements.