By the time Germany recorded its first case of Covid-19 in February, laboratories across the country had built up a stock of test kits.
“The reason why we in Germany have so few deaths at the moment compared to the number of infected can be largely explained by the fact that we are doing an extremely large number of lab diagnoses,” said Dr. Christian Drosten, chief virologist at Charité, whose team developed the first test.
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By now, Germany is conducting around 350,000 coronavirus tests a week, far more than any other European country. Early and widespread testing has allowed the authorities to slow the spread of the pandemic by isolating known cases while they are infectious. It has also enabled lifesaving treatment to be administered in a more timely way.
“When I have an early diagnosis and can treat patients early — for example put them on a ventilator before they deteriorate — the chance of survival is much higher,” Professor Kräusslich said.
Medical staff, at particular risk of contracting and spreading the virus, are regularly tested. To streamline the procedure, some hospitals have started doing block tests, using the swabs of 10 employees, and following up with individual tests only if there is a positive result.
At the end of April, health authorities also plan to roll out a large-scale antibody study, testing random samples of 100,000 people across Germany every week to gauge where immunity is building up.
One key to ensuring broad-based testing is that patients pay nothing for it, said Professor Streeck. This, he said, was one notable difference with the United States in the first several weeks of the outbreak. The coronavirus relief bill passed by Congress last month does provide for free testing.