Coronavirus is less deadly than we thought, says German expert

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The COVID-19 coronavirus that has swept the world is less deadly than experts had first thought, and governments implemented lockdown measures too quickly before we could study it, according to a leading German virologist Professor Hendrik Streeck.

Speaking to UnHerd’s Lockdown TV, Streeck said his study of a coronavirus outbreak in a German county revealed a fatality rate of 0.24-0.36 percent, which is significantly lower than the 0.8-0.9 percent estimated by prominent British epidemiologist Neil Ferguson.

Calculating the exact death rate of COVID-19 is central to policymakers and scientists who are trying to calculate the impact of lifting restrictions on movement.

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Countries around the world have begun to gradually come out of lockdown, while others have partially reimposed lockdowns due to case counts spiking shortly after restrictions were lifted.

If Streeck’s death rate is correct, governments could afford to lift measures more quickly and widely with fewer deaths. In contrast, if Ferguson’s higher estimate is correct, policymakers may be inclined to continue lockdown measures to keep the death rate lower in the short-term.

Read more: What counts as a death from COVID-19?

The death rate also helps estimate how many people have already caught the virus, which is key to working out to what extent a population may have developed natural immunity through catching the virus already.

While these estimates are central to policymaking, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that we still don’t know if a person who contracts COVID-19 develops an immunity or not, the strength of the immunity or how long it may last.

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Streeck’s study

Streeck’s study focused on a small German town where a “super spreading event” occurred at a carnival, Streeck told UnHerd TV.

Streeck led the study in the community of Gangelt, in the Heinsburg region close to the border with the Netherlands, which had been dubbed “Germany’s Wuhan” because of the high number of cases there.

However, Streeck’s team found that while the number of cases was indeed higher than in other areas in Germany, the death rate was noticeably lower than what Johns Hopkins had recorded as the national average.

“In total, we analyzed 405 households and 919 individuals. And what we found was that 15 percent – not 3.1 percent, but 15 percent – of the population of Gangelt was infected already,” Streeck told UnHerd.

Read more: Coronavirus: New York survey finds fatality rate at 0.5 pct, 14 pct have antibodies

Given that seven people had died in the region, this meant the case fatality rate was 0.36-0.37.

Streeck said this number reflected a conservative approach, as the study had underrepresented people who had tested positive already. Taking this into account, he said the real number is likely 0.24-0.26 percent.

The study used several different testing methods, including a questionnaire, antibody test, and a swab.

While Streeck said that the 15 percent rate was a reflection of Gangelt specifically, he said the death rate could be applied globally, and could be used to calculate infection rates elsewhere.
However, he did acknowledge that the fatality rate varied place by place based on demographics.

One commentator also raised questions whether such global conclusions could be drawn from such a small case study.

UK example - lockdown too early?

Streeck’s study has extensive implications when applied to a case study such as the UK.

Using 0.3 as the midpoint of Streeck’s range, the 30,000 deaths from coronavirus in the country would imply that 10 million people might have been infected – around a sixth of the population, taking 30,000 as 0.3 percent of 10 million. In contrast, using 0.85 in line with Ferguson, the number is only 3.5 million – making any chance of majority immunity further off.

These numbers have even greater consequences if the death toll is higher than the official number, which many have suggested is likely, due to different methods of recording deaths. Taking Streeck’s lowest number of 0.24 and 50,000 deaths in line with higher estimations, the conclusion is that over 20 million people have had the virus in the UK.

Both the death rate and the percentage of the population already infected are central considerations for policymakers trying to work out how long to maintain lockdowns.

Read more: Shutdowns need to last at least 3 months to curtail coronavirus deaths: Harvard study

While most scientists and policymakers have argued for lockdowns as essential to limiting the spread of coronavirus, there have been some dissenting voices.

Swedish Professor John Giesecke has argued that lockdowns are ineffective in the long-term, will be difficult to exit, and are politically dangerous by giving too much power to governments.

Streeck added to Giesecke’s warnings by suggesting that governments such as the UK had entered lockdown too quickly. This is because the impact of any change in measures, whether initiating a lockdown or easing restrictions, can only be measured after two or three weeks.

He also said that it is not feasible to try to suppress the virus until the emergence of a vaccine – which according to optimistic estimates could be deployed as early as the end of 2021 – as there is no guarantee that one will even be successfully developed.

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