Coronavirus: Early testing and swift lockdowns prevented 'up to 100,000 deaths' in Germany

Jill Petzinger
Jill Petzinger, Germany Correspondent, Yahoo Finance UK
Christian Drosten, director of the Institute of Virology at Berlin's Charite hospital. (Michael Kappeler/AFP via Getty Images)

Germany’s early response to the virus in terms of developing and deploying coronavirus tests at the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, and the government’s quick response to scientists’ recommendations has prevented thousands of deaths in the country, according to a leading virologist.

In an interview with Der Spiegel magazine (link in German), Christian Drosten, director of the Virology Institute at Berlin’s Charité hospital, said that without his lab’s work developing a coronavirus diagnostic test in January, Germany would have been less well-prepared for the outbreak.

“In mid-February we were able to routinely test for Sars-CoV-2 in Germany,” Drosten said. “If we hadn't been able to test so early, if we scientists hadn't informed politicians, I believe we would now have 50,000 to 100,000 more deaths in Germany.”

Europe’s largest economy has the biggest population in Europe with 83 million people. This is compared to France (67 million), UK with (66 million), Italy (60 million), and Spain (46 million).

Germany imposed its business and social lockdowns on 16 March, with chancellor Angela Merkel making a rare TV address appealing to people to stay home to slow the spread of the virus. She described the coronavirus crisis as the biggest challenge to face the country since the Second World War.

Merkel, herself a trained scientist, said that a shutdown of this scale “is not what we want to do, but what scientists say [we should do].”

While Germany has recorded 182,450 confirmed cases of coronavirus, its COVID-19 death toll, at 8,472, is dramatically lower than the UK, France, Spain, and Italy.

Drosten has on several occasions attributed the low fatality numbers to testing early and testing a lot.

"We stopped a pandemic wave with comparatively mild measures, and we did it very efficiently,” he told Der Spiegel.

Germany’s federal health minister Jens Spahn said last week that the government may introduce new regulation to ensure everyone admitted to hospitals, nursing homes, and other care facilities will be tested for COVID-19, even if they have no symptoms.

Spahn said that the country’s healthcare system can easily cope with testing everyone on arrival. “Last week, 425,000 tests were carried out across Germany,” he said. “But the test capacity is more than twice as large.”

By the end of April, Germany’s labs had the capacity to carry out nearly 900,000 coronavirus tests a week.

Drosten, regarded as one of the global leaders in the field, has become a household name in Germany since the outbreak of the pandemic, with nearly 400,000 Twitter followers and a hugely popular podcast.

He told Spiegel that before the pandemic he had not tweeted anything for two years, but decided to assume a more public-facing role during the crisis.

“As someone who works on coronaviruses, I simply saw myself as obliged to do so,” Drosten said. “So, in mid-January I decided to spend a large part of my time on public relations and to invest the strength of my work group into the introduction of the test.”

Since lockdowns began easing in April, there have been demonstrations in cities across Germany with right-wingers, left-wingers, and conspiracy theorists protesting ongoing social distancing rules, and claiming, among other things, that the coronavirus pandemic was not real.

It is what is known as a prevention paradox. “Prevention is paradoxical: nothing happened because we prevented it,” Drosten said. “I think one should say to the corona deniers: ‘Look abroad. We have achieved something in Germany that no comparable country in the world has managed to do.’”

Drosten added that he believes it is a “theoretical possibility” that Germany could avoid a second wave of the outbreak.