NRW launches COVID-19 research on disease prevention

The government of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) has launched a new research project on the coronavirus pandemic together with the University of Bonn and the administrative district of Heinsberg, where the disease first broke out in Germany in late February.

A team of scientists is interviewing patients and gathering data in the Heinsberg district in order to identify possible causal links with pre-existing conditions and to use findings to formulate disease prevention recommendations for Germany and Europe as a whole.

The researchers, headed by virologist and Director of University Hospital Bonn’s Institute of Virology Hendrik Streeck, hope to gain insights into the infection history of the patients.

“A large number of people had been infected with the coronavirus in the administrative district of Heinsberg before it reached other locations in Germany,” NRW’s Chief Minister Armin Laschet explains. “This means that the Heinsberg region is the starting point – from here, important insights can be gained for the whole of Germany.”

A social distancing regime has been in place throughout the country since late March, and restaurants, pubs and cafes are closed, as are universities and schools. Curfews have also been introduced in some federal states.

Laschet sees Heinsberg as a model region to scientifically assess which measures make sense to provide citizens with optimum protection. “At the same time, we have a chance to see which of the measures and restrictions in citizens’ day-to-day life continue to be reasonable from a virology and epidemiology standpoint – and which don’t,” he notes.

“Of course we are facing a dilemma. At the end of the day, mortality rates have to be weighed against threatened livelihoods, which can also cost lives,” says Streeck. “Making decisions here is up to the politicians. But we can try to provide them with the facts they need.”

The COVID-19 Case Cluster Study started on 30 March and is to cover a period of four weeks. Its objectives include estimating the number of unreported cases of infections and the number who have already recovered from the disease, thus establishing the scale of its impact. Already confirmed cases and households with family members in quarantine are being interviewed.

Virological diagnostics covering the patients’ environment as well as a questionnaire survey are to enable an assessment of whether tests already carried out have yielded correct results and how the virus can be transmitted via the air, surfaces, utensils, food and water. In addition, test persons are to be interviewed regarding preconditions and causal links such as travel, dietary habits or contact with animals. Ideally, this will enable recommendations on prevention for the whole of Europe.

The first infections with the coronavirus occurred after carnival celebrations in Heinsberg in mid-February. The local authorities quickly took action, closing schools and ordering quarantine for affected households.

Streeck and his team had already started carrying out preliminary research in the Heinsberg district before the NRW government initiative was launched. In cooperation with the local authorities, households were interviewed regarding symptoms, medication and preconditions of patients. Also, smear tests were taken to establish whether COVID-19 was a smear infection that could be transmitted by touching door handles and the like. No indication of this was found in Heinsberg.

According to Streeck, surveys of this kind are essential to provide politicians and the public at large with answers, and he wondered why the Robert Koch Institute, the government’s central scientific institution in the field of biomedicine, had not considered conducting such an exercise.

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