How German scientists hope to find coronavirus answers in country’s worst-hit spot

Researchers in Germany are trying to find out how more about how coronavirus spreads and how to contain it. They've set up a centre in one of Germany's worst-hit spots to find answers.

How German scientists hope to find coronavirus answers in country's worst-hit spot
Heinsberg is the site of a major coronavirus infection cluster in Germany. Photo: DPA

Can you get infected with coronavirus after using a shopping trolley in the supermarket? What about by touching a door handle in the office, or a remote control?

These are questions that many people have been asking since the coronavirus outbreak began.

Researchers have so far come to different conclusions on how long the virus can survive on surfaces. But now a team of scientists in Germany are trying to find answers.

“So far, no transmission of the virus in supermarkets, restaurants or hairdressers has been proven,” explained Bonn virologist Hendrik Streeck on the ZDF Markus Lanz talk show.

Instead, the major outbreaks have been the result of close get-togethers over a longer period of time, he said.

That's demonstrated in, for example, outbreaks that have stemmed from après-ski parties in Ischgl, at football matches in Bergamo or at carnival celebrations in the municipality of Gangelt in the Heinsberg district of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Hotspot of Germany

Heinsberg is considered the epicentre of the corona outbreak in Germany after a couple infected with Covid-19 attended carnival celebrations there in February, leading to a large spread in the Gangelt area.

Figures from April 2nd for Heinsberg, which has a population of around 250,000, show the total number of confirmed cases at around 1,400 and 39 deaths. More than 690 people have recovered from the illness so far.

Streeck and a team of medical students have now set up a pioneering study in this area in a bid to shed light on how coronavirus spreads, and how it can be contained.

Over the coming weeks the Heinsberg district will be used as a real-life lab for this purpose.

Called the “Covid-19 case cluster study” and launched on Tuesday March 31st, the study will follow 1,000 people chosen because they are representative of the German population.

Streeck's team is “interviewing patients in order to identify possible causal chains with pre-existing conditions and to generate prevention recommendations for the entire German and European population,” reports the North-Rhine Westphalia state government.

READ ALSO: Which parts of Germany are worst affected by coronavirus?

Bonn virologist Hendrik Streeck. Photo: DPA

The scientists plan to go into homes, schools and hospitals and examine how the virus impacts everyday life, researching, for example, how it is spread through surfaces, mobile phones, door handles or TV remote controls.

There are high hopes that the results could be used to inform how the rest of Germany and beyond can deal with coronavirus in future.

Streeck said: “The Heinsberg district represents an ideal situation to find answers for the rest of Germany.”

No evidence of live viruses on surfaces

Initial surveys and investigations in homes in Heinsberg have already provided some indications of how the virus works.

Streeck, who is director of the Institute of Virology at Bonn University, said he was able to detect coronavirus by swabbing remote controls, washbasins, mobile phones, toilets or door handles.

READ ALSO: What's the latest on coronavirus in Germany and what do I need to know?

However, it has not been possible to cultivate the virus in the laboratory on the basis of these swabs. “This means that we have detected the RNA (or ribonucleic acid, which carries the virus’s genetic information) of 'dead' viruses,” Streeck said.

According to his previous research results, he believes “that a door handle can only be infectious if someone has actually coughed in their hand and then reached for it.

“After that, you have to reach for the door handle yourself and touch your face,” he said. It is not yet possible to say how long the virus can remain on a door handle because not enough studies have been carried out.

Streeck added: “We were in a household where many highly infectious people lived, and yet we did not manage to detect a living virus from any surface.”

He said these early research results would now be further developed in the current study in Heinsberg.

Virologist Christian Drosten of Berlin's Charité hospital had also previously pointed out in an NDR podcast that coronaviruses are extremely sensitive to drying out. They are also transmitted by droplet infection and must be inhaled.

Therefore, according to the virologist, there is little chance of transmission by contact with notes or coins, for example.

Different findings on how coronavirus spreads

The Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) reports that the stability of coronaviruses in the environment depends on many factors such as temperature, humidity and the condition of the surface.

According to current findings, it is unlikely that imported goods such as food or consumer goods, toys, tools, computers, clothing or shoes could be a source of infection.

The BfR also emphasises that infection through contact with contaminated objects has not yet been proven.

Experts from the US Institute of Health NIH and the CSC, the epidemic control agency, however, had come to the conclusion that the coronavirus can survive for up to three days on plastics or stainless steel, 24 hours on paper and up to three hours in aerosols.

The Robert Koch Institute points out, however, that scientific studies on this topic are carried out under experimental conditions and don't reflect the realistic risk of transmission in everyday life.

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EXPLAINED: The new rules around getting a sick note over the phone in Germany

Due to high Covid infection numbers throughout the summer, it’s now possible to get a sick note from a doctor over the phone again for some illnesses. Here’s what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: The new rules around getting a sick note over the phone in Germany

What’s happened?

In spring 2020, German authorities changed the law so that people with a mild upper respiratory tract illness, such as the common cold, were able to get an incapacity to work certificate or AU-Bescheinigung by simply calling and speaking to their GP.

The rule was extended several times and finally reversed on June 1st this year due to falling infection figures. Since then people have had to go back to the practice – or do a video call if the doctor’s office has that system in place – to get a sick note.

Now, due to a decision by the Joint Federal Committee, the regulation has been reintroduced and patients can call their GP again for a sick note.

Can I get a sick note over the phone for any illness?

No. As before, the regulation only applies to patients suffering from a mild upper respiratory tract illness. Though Covid has not explicitly been named in the announcement, it seems that it is intended to be covered by the regulation.

If the doctor is convinced that the patient is unfit for work after a telephone consultation, then they can issue a sick note for up to seven days.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The changes around doctor’s notes in Germany you should know

If the symptoms persist after seven days, the certificate can be extended once more for another week.

Why now?

According to the Chairman of the G-BA, Josef Hecken, the regulation has been introduced now as a response to rising Covid numbers and in anticipation of the cold and flu season in the coming months: “We want to avoid full waiting rooms in doctors’ offices and the emergence of new infection chains,” he said.

The telephone sick leave rule is a simple, proven and uniform nationwide solution for that, he said. The rule is also necessary because video consultation hours are not yet available everywhere.

What else should I know?

The health insurer DAK is calling for telephone sick leave in the case of light respiratory diseases to be made possible on a permanent basis in Germany. DAK’s CEO Andreas Storm said that this should “not always be up for debate, because it has proven itself.” 

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about making a doctor’s appointment in Germany

The social association VdK also welcomed the reintroduction of the rule. The VdK’s President Verena Bentele said that the regulation would help to protect high-risk groups in particular from potential infections.

What are the rules to know about sick notes in Germany?

Germany has a strict system in place. If you are sick, you need to give your employer a Krankmeldung (notification of sickness) before the start of work on the first day (of your illness).

However, you also need to hand in a Krankschreibung (doctor’s note) on the fourth day of your illness. Some employments contracts, however, require you to submit a sick not earlier than the fourth day so check with your boss or HR on that point.