Epidemiologist Marcel Salathé (44) advises against meeting his employer, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne – it gets too hot in the middle of the heatwave. The Biotech Campus in Geneva, where Salathé has his office, is better cooled. In the course of the corona pandemic, Salathé made a name for himself as a sharp critic of the Federal Council and received a lot of media attention. But he seems to have had enough of the spotlight: In an interview with BLICK, Salathé is tame – and convinced of the Swiss way.
VIEW: Mr. Salathé, you are back from vacation. Where were you?
Marcel Salathé: Partly in Switzerland and partly in Spain – in Catalonia. I tried doing a bit of digital detox.
Are you isolating yourself now? After all, many cases are brought in – and Spain is currently developing into a corona hotspot again.
When I left it wasn’t a problem. I’ve been back for two weeks and Spain wasn’t on the list of risk countries.
In Switzerland, too, the number of corona cases is as high as it was last in April. Are we in the second wave?
I do not think so. Anyway, I prefer not to speak of a “wave”. This is not a good picture because you can’t do anything against a wave. I prefer to talk about a fire or a source of fire: every infection is, so to speak, a spark that spreads locally. But if you react correctly, you can prevent a wildfire. What we have to do is keep the individual small fires under control.
Is that you? Does Switzerland still have the situation under control?
At the moment I have the feeling that yes. The numbers are increasing, but still at a relatively slow level. I have the impression that most of the cantons have contact tracing under control. As soon as you get stress signals that you are losing control, it would become problematic.
Does it make sense for each canton to cook its own thing when it comes to the rules?
I think so. The problem with the lockdown was that it quarantined all of Switzerland. It is much more sensible to take local action. I would regulate as little nationally as possible. Sure, there are individual measures such as the mask requirement in public transport that cannot be introduced at the cantonal level, the decision of the Federal Council was sensible.
You are very convinced of the current Swiss path. That has at the beginning of the The crisis sounded different than you were among the loudest critics. Times honestly: it didn’t work that bad until summer – the numbers fell fast and sustainable.
I see exactly the same! At the very beginning, the virus was underestimated – I still stand behind this statement. My aim was to show that this virus is much more dangerous than the flu. That was not a criticism that the Federal Council did something wrong. I meant it more in the sense of a scientific correction.
You once tweeted the much-quoted sentence that politically no stone will be left unturned in coming to terms with the crisis. It doesn’t look like that, does it?
That was misinterpreted. I thought that it would be important to look under every stone. That we need to understand how we overcame this historic crisis. A tweet of 280 characters is not enough for this.
Marcel Salathé (44) is a specialist in digital epidemiology at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. He studied in Basel and did his doctorate at the ETH Zurich. After eight years in the USA at the universities in Stanford and Pennsylvania, Marcel Salathé returned to EPFL in 2015. Salathé is a member of the Covid-19 Task Force, the scientific corona advisory board of the federal government and the cantons, where he heads the Digital Epidemiology expert group.
You have repeatedly emphasized the importance of tracking chains of infection. But in the majority of cases it is apparently not possible to determine where the people were infected. Is the strategy failing right now?
Information about the infection site is important for targeted interventions. But even more important than the where is the who. As long as you can inform the people who have been exposed to the virus, you can break the chains of infection. For this reason, the Swiss-Covid-App works without any location data.
Then let’s talk about the Swiss Covid app. It has been in use for a little over a month. Are you content?
Yes very. Two million downloads within a month! In any other situation you would pop the champagne corks, but of course we’re not in a festive mood. But you can take a break and say it was a good start. Sure, the efficiency depends a lot on how many people it needs, so of course we want to move forward.
Only about a million people have activated the app …
I’m sure we will be able to increase that – both downloads and activations. At the moment I think we have a communication problem. We have to make it clearer that nobody is tracked. Sometimes people don’t quite understand the app yet.
One of them is SVP Federal Councilor Ueli Maurer. “I can’t figure it out,” he said.
That is ultimately customer feedback. After all, a Federal Council is a representative of the people: For me that means that a large part of the population does not get it right. So we have to explain better.
They are very convinced that the number of users of the app can still be increased. But after the initial enthusiasm these decline.
That is normal. There is always a great demand for a new product, and it always decreases. When the first success stories come along, people will understand better what the benefit really is. I would like at least half of the population to activate the app. We just have to make it even clearer that this is not state surveillance – we have campaigned for this internationally.
Let’s move on to a more general topic. Do you think the epidemiologists did a good job? Many believe that you and your colleagues are simply number acrobats in an ivory tower with little connection to reality.
I would like the people who criticize this to read the original work and see exactly what is actually meant. Admittedly, there is a lack of clarity when it comes to predictions. In the beginning there was a doubling every three days – and I think the concept of exponential growth may also have been poorly understood.
How is Corona going to happen in Switzerland?
Playing a prophet would be dangerous! In the beginning, the virus was able to spread through the population in “normal mode”. I still remember that I almost couldn’t believe the numbers. It was scary how precisely the curve went up exponentially. Now the situation is much more chaotic – in a positive sense. But I do hope that we will bring the numbers back into double digits by the end of summer. In autumn and winter the virus will spread better because we will all be inside a lot more. Despite everything, one must not forget: this crisis will also pass.
If there is a vaccine?
Exactly. I am sure the so-called new normal that we now have will not last, even if many do not believe it. Maybe there will be a little more digitization and a little more home office. But the parties and the big concerts will be there again. In any case, I’m looking forward to it.
Those who test positive for Corona will receive a code from the canton doctor. As soon as this is typed into the Swiss Covid app, all people with whom you have been in contact should be warned. But: what if the code never comes? This is how it happened to Johannes Schwarzer, as he writes on Twitter. He did his positive test in Geneva, as Schwarzer told BLICK when asked. He had only mild symptoms. But: “My test was a week ago and I’m still waiting for the code.”
No one at the canton of Geneva was available for comment on Sunday. Epidemiologist Marcel Salathé responded on Twitter: The case must be cleared up as soon as possible. The Federal Office of Public Health (BAG) also replied via the app’s Twitter channel: Schwarzer should request the code from the canton.
– Gianna Blum