Virologists to turn worst-hit German district into coronavirus ‘laboratory’

German scientists have announced what they described as a first-of-its-kind study into how coronavirus spreads and how it can be contained using the country’s worst-hit district as a real-life laboratory.

The virus has spread more widely among the 250,000 residents of Heinsberg – a district in North Rhine-Westphalia bordering the Netherlands – than anywhere else in Germany, with 1,281 confirmed infections and 34 deaths. More than 550 people have recovered from the illness so far. The advance of the virus in Heinsberg, nicknamed “Germany’s Wuhan” after the Chinese city where the global pandemic emerged, is between two to two and a half weeks ahead of the rest of the country.

The World Health Organization is recommending that people take simple precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of the coronavirus, for which there is no specific cure or vaccine.

The UN agency advises people to:

  • Frequently wash their hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or warm water and soap
  • Cover their mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue when sneezing or coughing
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever or cough
  • Seek early medical help if they have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and share their travel history with healthcare providers

Many countries are now enforcing or recommending curfews or lockdowns. Check with your local authorities for up-to-date information about the situation in your area. 

In the UK, NHS advice is that anyone with symptoms should stay at home for at least 7 days.

If you live with other people, they should stay at home for at least 14 days, to avoid spreading the infection outside the home.

Over the coming weeks the district will be used by leading virologists and a team of 40 medical students as a sort of laboratory for studying the virus. The “Covid-19 case cluster study”, launched on Tuesday morning, will follow 1,000 people who have been chosen because they are representative of the German population as a whole.

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The results will be used to create a blueprint for how Germany might deal with the virus over the next few years, said Prof Hendrik Streeck, head virologist at the University of Bonn.

“This is a big chance for the whole of Germany,” Streeck told a meeting of parliamentarians that was streamed live on television. “We’ll be gathering information and practical tips as to how to deal with Covid-19 and how we can achieve further containment of it, without our lives having to come to a standstill over a period of years.”

The study’s results will potentially have implications for other countries.

The scientists will go into 500 households, as well as kindergartens and hospitals, to study how the infection is spread. They will look at every aspect ofeveryday life, from the extent to which children pass it onto adults, how it is spread within families – from mobile phones to door handles, to cups and the TV remote control – to whether pets can spread it, and whether it is transferred via certain types of food. “If there are ways of preventing the illness from spreading in our environment, we want to know what they are, with the goal of finding out how we can freely move about in the environment together,” Streeck said.

“On the basis of our findings we’ll be able to make recommendations, which politicians can use to guide their decision-making,” Streeck said. “It could be that the measures currently in place are fine, and we say, ‘Don’t reduce them.’ But I don’t expect that, I expect the opposite, that we will be able to come up with a range of proposals as to how the curfews can be reduced.”

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By testing the immunity to Covid-19 of the study’s participants, the scientists will also be able to establish what the estimated number of undetected cases might be nationwide.

The first results are expected to already be made public next week, though the entire gathering of evidence will take several weeks and its analysis is likely to be carried out over months and years.

Streeck said he was unaware of any other studies of its kind being carried out in other hotspots, such as Wuhan in China, Ischgl in Austria, Bergamo in Italy and Alsace in France. He was surprised that the government’s own advisors on public health matters had not come up with the idea already, “because after all, containment is of national interest”, he said.

He said he hoped the study would help decision-makers in the “ethical dilemma” of establishing a balance between maintaining livelihoods and managing the death rate.



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