COVID-19 Day 37: What Germany Knows About Coronavirus


Prof. Christian Drosten at the Charité Insitute of Virology

On the eve of publishing a comprehensive new study of German’s first cases of COVID-19, Prof. Christian Dorsten, Director of the Charité Institute of Virology in Berlin, was interviewed on This Week in Virology. Prof. Dorsten is Germany’s top expert on coronavirus and identified Germany’s first case of SARS back in 2003.

Prof. Dorsten hosts the daily science podcast “Das Coronavirus” in which he reviews scientific papers on virus research and discusses how other countries are responding to the pandemic. He has been called Germany’s ‘Doctor Fauci,’ for his ability to communicate information to laymen and scientists alike. Prof. Dorsten is a science adviser to Chancellor Angela Merkel on coronavirus, and in that role, can claim some credit for Germany’s success in fighting the pandemic.

In 2003, Prof. Dorsten was one of the first scientists to identify SARS outside of China. Prophetically, when this first patient being tested in Europe, Chinese scientists already knew about the virus and how it could spread. But just as with COVID-19 today, the Chinese government wouldn’t let the information out.

Germany’s first COVID-19 case occurred in late January 2020, when a Chinese businesswoman traveled to Munich for meetings. She only had mild symptoms and was treating herself with over-the-counter medication while working through her illness. She unintentionally started a mini-outbreak that infected 14 people.


Contrary to the Chinese government narrative, Prof. Dorsten expressed doubts that the virus first emerged in the Wuhan market. Like most virologists, he believes a bat coronavirus mutated and infected another animal species before mutating again and infecting humans, somewhere else in China. The Wuhan market was the locus where infected humans spread it among each other and then the world.

He cites as precedent, coronaviruses which also originated in bats but then jumped to other animals before evolving to infect humans; Cattle with HCoV-OC43; Camels with MERS; civets and raccoon dogs with SARS1. The fact that SARS-CoV-2 has been found in cats and zoo tiger proves its ability to jump across wide zoological divides.

In discussing SARS-CoV-2 transmissibility between people, in modeling they found surface contact only accounted for 10% of transmissions and the other 90% was by air; in exhaled droplets and aerosolized virus particles. His team found evidence that SARS2 was replicating in the digestive tract but they could not isolate virus particles in the stool. So while frequent hand-washing is still important, widespread face-mask and social distancing play a much greater role in slowing infection.

His team found that over 50% of infection transmissions occur during a patient’s pre-symptomatic period, which on average was 5 days. That means during those 5 days. people are shedding viruses and spreading infections before experiencing their first symptoms. Prof. Dorsten doubts there are truly asymptomatic carriers, rather their symptoms were so mild that they ignored them.

They ended the interview discussing how the pandemic could end. In the first couple of weeks after the outbreak hit Germany, Prof. Dorsten said he was “A Vaccine Romantic”, hoping that if his department really streamlined process they could develop a vaccine by fall. Sadly no. After talking with those directly involved in vaccine development, they told him it will take more than a year at least. Sobering news indeed.

The Charité Universitätsmedizen Berlin is one of Europe’s largest university hospitals. Highly regarded for medical research. The cures for diphtheria and syphilis were discovered there and over half of Germany’s Nobel Prize winners in Physiology and Medicine have worked at the institution.


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