By Thomas Escritt and Paul Carrel
BERLIN (Reuters) - Signs are emerging that the exponential upwards curve in new coronavirus infections in Germany is flattening off for the first time thanks to social distancing measures, the head of Germany's public health institute said on Monday.
Early testing for the virus in Germany had helped the health authorities and restrictions on public gatherings in places over the last week appeared to be working, said Lothar Wieler, head of the Robert Koch Institute.
"We are seeing signs that the exponential growth curve is flattening off slightly," Wieler told reporters. "But I will only be able to confirm this trend definitively on Wednesday."
He said he was optimistic that measures taken so far in Germany, including school closures, instructions on hand-washing and strict warnings against public gatherings, were already having an effect.
As of Sunday, there were 22,672 cases of coronavirus in Germany, with 86 deaths, the Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases said.
Figures from private data provider Statista show the death rate of just 0.4% in Germany compares with much higher rates of 9.2% in Italy, 7.8% in Iran and 6.1% in Spain. The average age of people infected with the virus in Germany is 45.
Virologist Christian Drosten, from Berlin's Charite hospital, said in a weekend newspaper interview that the lower death rate in Germany - compared to Italy - could be partly explained by widespread testing for the virus here.
"I assume that many young Italians are or were infected without ever being detected," he told newspaper Die Zeit. "This also explains the virus' supposedly higher mortality rate there."
But he said that at some point Germany would not be able to test as widely.
"Our fatality rate will then also rise," he said. "It will appear that the virus has become more dangerous, but this will be a statistical artifact, a distortion. It will simply reflect what's already starting to happen: We're missing more and more infections."
Germany currently has 28,000 intensive care beds and is aiming to double that capacity.
"We do have more beds, and maybe we're a little better trained," said Drosten. "But even though intensive care in Germany is good, there's still not enough of it."
Chancellor Angela Merkel's chief of staff, Helge Braun, said on Sunday he believed the government could hit its target of doubling the number of intensive care beds and could probably ramp up production of the accompanying medical equipment too.
"But the question of having enough staff - that's a big challenge," he said in a political chat show on ARD television.
(Reporting by Thomas Escritt and Paul Carrel; editing by Scot W. Stevenson and Angus MacSwan)