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Experts: Rapid testing helps explain few German virus deaths

BERLIN – Germany has confirmed more than 1,100 cases of the new coronavirus but — so far — just two deaths, far fewer than other European countries with a similar number of reported infections.

Experts said Monday that rapid testing as the outbreak unfolded meant Germany has probably diagnosed a much larger proportion of those who have been infected, including younger patients who are less likely to develop serious complications.

That's given authorities more chance of containing the virus, and more time to prepare for it.

“We in Germany were simply at the forefront in terms of diagnostics,” said Christian Drosten, the director of the Institute for Virology at Berlin's Charite hospital.

No deaths of people with the virus were reported in Germany before the first two announced Monday: an 89-year-old in the western city of Essen and a 78-year-old man in Heinsberg county near the Dutch border. Both locations are in North Rhine-Westphalia state, which accounts for 484 of the 1,112 infections confirmed in Germany to date.

France has reported a similar number of cases as Germany — just over 1,200 — but also 19 deaths. Spain's health minister said Monday night there have been 28 deaths among the country's 1,204 confirmed cases.

Drosten said Germany's dense network of independent labs received both the technical information needed to conduct tests and the approval to bill for them in January, when case numbers in Germany were still in the single digits.

“These effects combined, I'm very certain of this, gave us an extreme advantage in recognizing the epidemic in Germany," Drosten told reporters in Berlin.

Unlike in other countries, where national laboratories had a monopoly on testing, Germany's distributed system helped doctors to swiftly determine whether suspected cases actually involved the new virus or a common cold, which can have similar symptoms.

“Other countries lost a month or even more time because of this,” Drosten said.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

Lothar H. Wieler, who heads the Robert Koch Institute, Germany's national disease control institute, cautioned that the country will see more deaths going forward.

The low number of complications relative to the number of cases reported so far was partly due to the types of people being diagnosed, he said, contrasting the situation in Germany with that in nearby Italy, which has reported 463 deaths and 9,172 cases.

“It's a fact that the age structure of those who have died in Italy is around 80,” said Wieler. “Many of the young people who are also infected simply haven't been recognized.”

According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

In Germany, the median age of those diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease the virus causes, is about 40, he said. “We identified people early on with our testing who are infected, but not seriously ill.”

The 79-year-old man who died in Heinsberg, where a large cluster of cases has been linked to traditionally raucous German carnival celebrations last month, had numerous underlying health problems including diabetes and heart trouble, said Stephan Pusch, who heads the county administration.

Authorities across Germany opened additional testing sites Monday. In Berlin, almost 100 people lined up outside one of four new sites waiting for it to open. The town of Esslingen set up a drive-in testing site where patients referred by a general practitioner can have samples taken while sitting in their cars.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that tough new measures now being imposed would help buy even more time to slow the spread of the virus.

In recent days, authorities have stepped up quarantines, closed numerous schools and urged soccer clubs to play matches without spectators. On Monday, the German parliament announced that visitors won't be allowed to access the glass dome of the Reichstag building anymore.

"All of this is necessary," said Merkel.

“We are working for valuable time, time in which scientists can research medicines and a vaccine," she said. ___

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