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Coronavirus: 1.8 million Germans could be infected

May 4, 2020

A new study out of Germany has suggested that the coronavirus infection rate there could be much higher than initially thought. Some 1.8 million people could be infected nationwide, a quarter of them without symptoms.

Heinsberg, a coronavirus hotspot in Germany
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Güttler

The number of coronavirus infections in Germany could be 10 times higher than currently thought, researchers from the University of Bonn have concluded in the much-discussed Heinsberg Report, which took a closer look at the effects of COVID-19 on a small community in Germany.

Led by virologist Hendrik Streeck, researchers examined the effects of the coronavirus on the community of Gangelt in the district of Heinsberg in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Gangelt was hit heavily by COVID-19 after the infection was able to spread at a local Carnival celebration held in February.

The Bonn researchers studied the line of infection in Gangelt as well as what groups became infected, what symptoms they displayed, and how often the infection resulted in death.

Just over 900 people from 404 different households were tested. Results showed around 15% testing positive for coronavirus, a figure five times higher than the nationally reported rate.

Such a rate on a national scale would mean there are as many as 1.8 million infections in Germany, or 10 times the amount currently known to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI).

RKI figures currently show around 163,000 cases of the new coronavirus in Germany.

Read more: The immune system's fight against the coronavirus

Many cases asymptomatic

Researchers also found that 22% of all infections were asymptomatic, meaning the people did not display any of the symptoms associated with the virus, including fever or cough. These numbers line up with findings out of China and South Korea, where around a fifth of those infected reportedly do not realize they are sick and are therefore unaware that they could be infecting those around them.

"Streecks assumption that we have a high number of unreported cases has now been scientifically verified," said Minister President of North Rhine-Westphalia Armin Laschet, who said the report was an important document for informing future discussions on how to proceed with coronavirus measures in Germany.

"The results can help improve modelling used to estimate how the virus will spread," said co-author of the study Gunther Hartmann. "Thus far, the data basis in this regard was comparatively shaky."

Researchers back away from conclusions

Some, however, have said it is false to think the local study is representative of the national situation in Germany.

The rate of death in Gangelt, for example, was found to be 0.36%. However, with its high number of infections, the community is an example of a "high prevalence population." Such a figure cannot be extrapolated onto the whole of Germany, where the concentration of infections is much more varied. Similar conclusions could be made about the infection rate.

After receiving strong criticism for initial results in April, the researchers were cautious about the implications of their study this time: "Whatever conclusions are pulled from the results of the study depends on many factors," said Streeck. "The evaluation of the findings and the conclusions for concrete decisions are the role of society and politics."DW sends out a daily selection of the day's news and features. Sign up here.

Kristie Pladson
Kristie Pladson Business reporter, editor and moderator with a focus on technology and German economy.@bizzyjourno