The government-run Robert Koch Institute for public health research in Berlin has been at the forefront of the country’s robust pandemic response, leading the search for a vaccine and racing to push out vast stocks of tests. A career epidemiologist at the institute explains the challenges of reopening, communicating risk, and contact tracing in the German context.
9,232Covid deaths as of August 19, 2020. Source: WHO Dashboard
The first confirmed case in Germany was not really the first suspected case. We had several suspected cases earlier on, which were all negative, but then we were not so surprised that one day, on January 27 in Munich, one of these cases proved positive. By that time, we already had several important things in place: our case definition, our test criteria, our hygiene and infection prevention and control recommendations, and our recommendations concerning contact tracing.
Our value of “R,” or the reproduction number of the virus, which Chancellor Angela Merkel has used frequently in public addresses, is still something we calculate and report on a daily basis. Of course now we have far fewer cases than in March, so any outbreak at this point has a direct impact on our reproduction numbers. It’s up and down, but it’s around one now (meaning every patient infects on average one other person). We currently [as of June 18] have a median case number of 300 to 350 cases each day, which is low.
Of course it’s possible there will be a second wave. And our main objective then is to keep the incidence of new cases as low as possible. We are already trying to do sensitive testing of anyone with any respiratory disease and in any symptomatic patients that belong to a cluster, or who live in certain risky surroundings like nursing homes. And there is the political commitment that if necessary–if a county has cases above a certain threshold–they will have to reintroduce local lockdown measures.
We are also trying to prepare for a vaccine. In June, the Health Ministry formed an alliance with France, Italy, and the Netherlands and signed a contract for pre–orders of 300 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine currently in development.
They have to do this contact tracing work, even if the numbers are high.