How to increase the size of the panic is important

"Superspreaders can be good news"

Niki Popper is part of the panel of experts that advises the Federal Chancellor, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of the Interior. The numbers will continue to rise, he says. But that is no reason to panic, we have to do something together now. Eva Steinkellner-Klein met Niki Popper for an interview in his office in Vienna.

noe.ORF.at: The numbers are increasing. The government speaks of the beginning of the second wave. How high will it pile up?

Niki Popper: That is the question of when and if the second wave will come. Indeed, the question now arises whether we can still master the matter. Whether we keep up with testing, tracing and isolating - because that is a factor that has a high impact.

noe.ORF.at: How can you get the numbers under control again?

Popper: There are two big factors. First, how many people are newly infected, and second, how to get people out of there. The faster it can be tested and contacts can be found and isolated, the better and the greater the effect.

We can see from our models that this works particularly well with Covid-19, because there are super spreaders. That's really exciting: This is actually good news, because the tests, tracing and isolating work well there, but it has to be done quickly.

noe.ORF.at: And at the moment it is too slow?

Popper: I can't answer that because I don't have the data. But we see that the numbers are still going up, that we are reaching the limits of our resources. Of course, the more people who have tested positive are added every day. So it's a negative feedback loop.

noe.ORF.at: How does it work in Lower Austria?

Popper: Basically good, but the question remains how it will be in autumn. Many will have coughs, and children will come home coughing too. It is therefore very important that the tests are evaluated quickly.

noe.ORF.at: The excitement is great because the numbers are increasing massively. There is something like panic in some reports. How are you there?

Popper: I never panic because then I would have the wrong job. The question is, how can we as a research institution understand the spread of the virus and support politics? There is not one point where we can start now. That would of course be very nice if I could say now, we'll lock it up now and then everything will be fine.

Unfortunately, it's more complicated. We must act sensibly in every action. We now have to see what we can leave out. This is the first step. The second step, as I said, is to quickly test and isolate. Then we can get the situation under control, but the momentum is not very positive at the moment.

noe.ORF.at: Are we lagging behind the virus?

Popper: It's not up to me to judge that. We do it easy. We have our virtual Austria with our almost nine million Austrians. We can see exactly how a strategy works. I can imagine how complicated it is to put all of this into practice.

In fact, I sometimes get the impression that politics still has a bit of that old approach of only reacting when something happens. We learned in the spring that we always have to be two weeks earlier. Otherwise, it's like if Dominic Thiem would only react when Zverev has already served and only thinks two seconds later. He wouldn't have won that way either. We have to work on that together now.

noe.ORF.at: Can you work out when the health system will be overloaded?

Popper: I think that's a very important question. We are currently still a long way from that. There will be an increase in the number of hospitals, there will be an increase in the use of intensive care beds. Why? Because the number is increasing in absolute terms and because the age structure is currently changing. The situation is currently shifting away from the young. But we are far from a resource bottleneck.

noe.ORF.at: Where do you actually get infected?

Popper: laughs. You become infected when you get very close to someone who is sick. In September the news will surely come that the schools are to blame. Why? Because the schools have now opened. Once it's the choir, then the free churches, the Rotary club, and so on. But we have to be very careful here. There is no scientific evaluation.

If I hug you tightly now, I will infect you. So I can take a lot of measures in everyday life to prevent the spread. And yes, in a second step, we as a society have to consider where to lock. If the numbers continue to rise, politicians will have to think about what to do. But basically the only question is: how close are the contacts?

noe.ORF.at: You have two children. Do you send them to school without hesitation?

Popper: Yes, because I believe that we have agreed rules that we now have to adhere to and then shouldn't always find and discuss something else. In school it is important that the class groups stay together as much as possible. We now know that small groups are okay if they don't mix. This morning I talked to the children what it would be like when the sore throat came. Then it has to be clarified quickly what is going on. We already have cases in schools in Vienna and Lower Austria.

noe.ORF.at: What do you actually calculate if you are not currently doing coronavirus simulations for the government?

Popper: There are a lot of areas. Wherever we have complex, dynamic systems that humans have built and that are dependent on humans, nature and technology. This can be the freight logistics of the ÖBB, energy networks or archaeological excavations. So it's a very broad field. That is what makes our work so exciting. It may be that I talk to an archaeologist in the morning, a doctor at lunchtime and someone from the logistics department in the afternoon.

noe.ORF.at: How are you with your fame? Are you recognized on the street?

Popper: Yes, it does happen. Quite funny: a while ago I went around the corner and coughed. Then a young man with a child said, "Mr. Popper, you are fine anyway". So it does happen. But, as that happens, it will pass again, hopefully sooner than later in the sense of Covid-19.

The interview was conducted by Eva Steinkellner-Klein, noe.ORF.at