BERLIN (Reuters) - Top German politicians on Monday called for new measures to slow the spread of new, more infectious variants of the coronavirus, including more health checks for cross-border commuters and intensified gene sequencing of virus samples.
In future, health labs will have to sequence 5% of the samples they collect when screening for the coronavirus to check if they match more virulent variants first identified in Britain and South Africa, or if new mutations were emerging in Germany.
National and regional leaders are due to meet on Tuesday to decide on new measures. "We still have a big risk ... that is the risk of mutation," government spokesman Steffen Seibert told a news conference, calling for a joint European response.
An outbreak of a mutated variant of the coronavirus at a clinic in the southern German alpine town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, which appeared not to be one of the known variants, fanned the concerns.
"We have to wait for the complete sequencing ... We cannot say at all at the moment whether this (mutation) has any clinical relevance," Clemens Stockklausner, deputy medical director at the clinic, told journalists.
New coronavirus infections have been decreasing in recent days and the occupancy of intensive care beds by COVID-19 patients has declined by 10-15%, according to Health Minister Jens Spahn, who said intensified testing of cross-border commuters should be introduced to help prevent new variants entering Germany.
Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz called for an extension and tightening of lockdown measures that are due to expire on Jan. 31.
Stricter requirements for companies to allow staff to work from home, compulsory wearing of heavy duty FFP2 masks in certain areas, restrictions on public transport and the introduction of curfews are also being debated.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany rose by 7,141 to 2.04 million, according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases. That was down by more than 5,000 from a week earlier, but daily numbers from Bavaria and Rhineland-Palatinate were incomplete, the RKI said.
The reported death toll rose by 214 to 46,633.
(Reporting by Kirsti Knolle, Thomas Escritt, Paul Carrel, Maria Sheahan; Editing by Riham Alkousaa and Giles Elgood)