The Corona explainer leaves an institute with an uncertain future

Berlin After eight years, Lothar Wieler is leaving the Robert Koch Institute on Friday. He moves to the Hasso Plattner Institute in Potsdam.

Anyone who asks about Wieler’s balance sheet at the RKI, in politics or in science hears a lot of recognition – but also criticism. The digitization of the authority fell by the wayside during the pandemic, and Wieler’s relationship with Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) was also considered tense. For the time being, Wieler’s deputy Lars Schaade will head the institute on an interim basis.

At the same time, it is said in unison, Wieler and the RKI were indispensable during the pandemic. He said he “sacrificed himself,” from those around him. Especially in the early days, the 62-year-old appeared weekly in the federal press conference to explain the crisis. Always in a suit, he reported on the current corona numbers.

In the debate about protective measures such as school closures and contact restrictions, Wieler also took a stricter stance than many others, which sometimes brought him sharp criticism. Not only the FDP called for his resignation, he also received death threats from time to time.

Wieler first had to get used to his role, before that he was hardly ever in public. Before moving to the RKI, he was director of the Institute for Microbiology and Animal Diseases at the Free University of Berlin. Wieler studied veterinary medicine in Berlin and Munich in the 1980s.

Wieler modernized a Stone Age institute

When he took over as head of the institute in 2015, he started as an innovator. According to employees, the RKI was in a Stone Age state at the time. Wieler’s predecessor is said to have had his e-mails printed out and presented. In the institute, there was a “Wagenburg mentality” towards modern, digital research methods.

>> Read more: The Corona explainer leaves – RKI boss Lothar Wieler resigns

Wieler brought a lot of fresh wind with him when he started and tried to break down internal resistance. In a meeting he once said that he no longer wanted to hear the word authority as an excuse for standing still.

Wieler tried to attract young scientists to the institute and to modernize the outdated IT. Many of today’s projects were unthinkable back then – such as the Corona dashboard of the RKI and real-time monitoring with data from professional societies. In addition, Wieler set up an AI center.

However, modernization projects got stuck during the pandemic, and the weaknesses became apparent, for example in the form of incomplete pandemic data. The RKI, critics say, never got beyond the status of a beetle and virus counter institute. In addition, although the institute enjoys a good reputation, it still has a dusty image. This sometimes makes it difficult to fill positions in areas such as artificial intelligence.

Companions also say that Wieler lived in constant fear of being fired during the pandemic. “The aim was to please the Minister of Health – and not to risk anything,” it says.

Fears about the future at the RKI

Wieler worked well with former Minister Jens Spahn (CDU), but the situation apparently changed suddenly with Lauterbach. As a medical doctor and health economist, the SPD politician knew his way around better than Wieler. In addition, Lauterbach was happy to ignore the head of the institute and contacted RKI researchers personally if something interested him.

More than a year ago, there was a public crunch between Lauterbach and Wieler. Wieler’s institute insisted on “maximum contact restrictions” in recommendations, while the federal and state governments were considering significantly less stringent measures. A few weeks later, Wieler’s institute surprisingly shortened the period for the convalescent status from six to three months, which triggered a wave of criticism.

Lothar Wieler and Karl Lauterbach

The relationship between the two is said to have been strained.

(Photo: imago images/Chris Emil Janssen)

Wieler is leaving an institute with an uncertain future. Neither his successor has been clarified nor the tasks that he will take on in the future. Minister Lauterbach is planning a new Federal Institute for Public Health that will operate alongside the RKI.

“We have Wieler to thank for excellent crisis management and excellent communication in the biggest health crisis of the century,” says the health policy spokesman for the Greens, Janosch Dahmen.

Nonetheless, Germany failed to set up a “competitive public health institute based on an international model”. When the structure is in place, Wieler’s successor will be clarified. That’s why, as employees describe it, there are fears of a loss of importance at the institute.

Wieler, on the other hand, shouldn’t find it difficult to say goodbye. The political business has tired him, it is said. It was always clear that he would do something different when the pandemic ended. At the Hasso Plattner Institute, he will be spokesman for the new “Digital Health” cluster, which deals with the digitization of medicine and healthcare.

More: Back to science – Former RKI boss Lothar Wieler has a new job

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