In Depth

Europe’s Wuhan: inside Germany’s groundbreaking coronavirus experiment

Heinsberg has gone from ‘leper colony’ to ‘vanguard’ of German Covid-19 efforts

Germany’s worst-hit district will be used as a real-life laboratory to study the spread of coronavirus.

A team of virologists and researchers have turned Heinsberg, a town in western Germany that borders the Netherlands, into a “Covid-19 case cluster study”.

Why Heinsberg?

The town and surrounding district is the worst affected area in Germany, with 1,281 confirmed Covid-19 infections and 34 deaths.

It has been labelled “Germany’s Wuhan”, after the Chinese city where the global pandemic began, and it is believed to be more than two weeks ahead of the rest of the country’s outbreak, says The Guardian.

Heinsberg is “something like a portal into the near future”, says The Times. “The full force of the coronavirus hit the district earlier and harder than any other part of Germany.”

Hundreds of people were infected after attending the annual Langbroker Dicke Flaa carnival parade in the villages of Langbroich and Harzelt on 15 February.

Surrounding areas began to shun their Heinsberg neighbours. “People in other west German cities took fright as soon as they saw a car with the ‘HS’ numberplate,” said Frank Reifenrath, the managing director of a financial consultancy in Heinsberg.

“Some fitters [from Heinsberg] were turned away at the door by their clients purely because of their numberplates, even though they had recently tested negative.” 

But now, “Heinsberg is no longer a leper colony so much as the vanguard of Germany’s efforts to keep a lid on Covid-19”, says the Times.–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––For a round-up of the most important stories from around the world - and a concise, refreshing and balanced take on the week’s news agenda - try The Week magazine. Start your trial subscription today –––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

What are researchers looking for?

The study will track the health progression of 1,000 people in the district, chosen because they are representative of the German population as a whole.

The aim is to create a blueprint for how the whole of Germany could deal with the virus outbreak over the coming years, says Professor Hendrik Streeck, head virologist at the University of Bonn.

“This is a big chance for the whole of Germany,” Streeck told a meeting of politicians in a televised live-stream. “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 scientists will examine private and public spaces, including kindergartens, hospitals and 500 households, to track the virus’s spread.

They will examine how the virus is passed on within families, how children spread it to adults, whether pets can spread it, and even whether certain types of food can spread the virus.

They will also seek to answer questions about how the virus lives on surfaces, tracking how it can be transmitted from touching mobile phones, door handles and remote controls.

“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.

By testing which of the study’s participants have immunity from the disease, the researchers will hope to offer an idea of how many undetected cases there could be nationwide.

What will they do with the results?

“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.”

Streeck said he didn’t know of any similar studies being carried out in other hotspots, such as Wuhan, Ischgl in Austria, Bergamo in Italy or Alsace in France.

As the first study of its kind, its results and recommendations are likely to be of interest beyond the borders of Germany.

The researchers plan to unveil their first set of results next week, but the study will continue for several weeks and analysis is likely to be carried out over months and years.

Streeck said he hopes the results would aid decision-makers with the “ethical dilemma” of balancing death rate and maintaining livelihoods.

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