Press Office

Statement: Breaking infection dynamics, society back to normal: Three prerequisites for large-scale tests and targeted isolation

Press release from 25 March 2020

By Boris Augurzky and Christoph M. Schmidt, RWI

In recent weeks, the German government has made the right call by introducing increasingly strong measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Absent these measures, a very large number of people – probably 60 to 70% of the population in Germany – would become infected within a short time. Although Germany has one of the highest capacities of intensive care beds per inhabitant in the world, which should be further increased, RWI calculations suggest that a continued spread of infections would mean that around 80% of people with intensive care needs would have had to be turned away within six to seven weeks. This would make it impossible to avoid several hundred thousand deaths due to Covid-19 in Germany.

If successful, the tougher measures introduced in the meantime will lead to a significant slowdown in the spread of the virus. The number of infected persons could thus probably always remain below the threshold above which people seeking help must be turned away from hospitals. Model calculations by RWI, which are based on the increasingly clear data on the damage potential of the pathogen, show that “only” about 200,000 Covid-19 deaths would then be reported. However, they also show that this strategy would probably have to be in force for six to seven months to avoid overburdening the health care system. 

Since the economy and society are equally burdened by this state of affairs, policymakers will have to relax social restrictions sooner or later. However, any relaxation would risk overburdening the health care system again. At the same time, the longer the current strategy is pursued, the more dire the impacts on the functioning of our economy. This could deprive our society of its livelihood through a flood of insolvencies and mass unemployment.

Turning the tide as quickly as possible: large-scale tests as a strategy

The only way out of this dilemma is to adjust the strategy implemented so far, which was adopted out of a lack of alternatives, by placing all people in Germany, infected and non-infected, under a quasi-quarantine. As soon as possible, a switch should now be made to an alternative strategy that consistently focuses on the infected and on suspected cases. This alternative strategy would rely on the massive use of testing procedures, the evaluation of information on contacts and whereabouts, and the consistent isolation of infected persons. If successful, a massive increase in new infections could be prevented, while at the same time moving the economy and society back towards normal operations. The experiences of Asian countries such as South Korea and Singapore show that this could succeed in principle.

Graph Container-Throughput-Index

In order to successfully follow such a path in Germany, three prerequisites need to be met:

1. Technological requirements: The goal must be to expand testing on a very large scale. Among other things, we need a massive ramp-up in the production of test material, the construction of so-called drive-through test stations in which every citizen can be tested quickly and easily, personnel trained at short notice to carry out the test protocols, and appropriate laboratory capacities. If possible, tests should generally be carried out outside of clinics and doctors' practices to ensure the safety of health personnel through minimal contact. With systematic, comprehensive testing, infected persons can be detected early, isolated immediately, and treated to prevent the virus from spreading further. This is a huge effort, but one that must be made. In addition, it is indispensable that every citizen have an app that immediately tells you whether a person registered as infected has been in a place where you have been and if so, that you should carry out a test for yourself. Such an app is also necessary for a meaningful and timely reporting system on the current status and for the calibration of epidemiological models. 

2. Procedural requirements: A crisis committee of the Federal Government (among others, the Federal Ministry of Health and the Federal Ministry of the Interior) must immediately create standardised procedures for the digital collection of information, implementation and coordination, and initiate the corresponding laws and regulations.

3. Binding participation: Citizens should be prepared to temporarily – for the duration of the crisis – waive data protection with regard to their mobility. Help for individuals can hardly be effectively provided in an anonymous form. The health care system must know without delay where people who tested positive have been and which other people must now also be tested because they have been in the same place. The price to be paid for this is a small one, given the alternatives. As the experience from South Korea has shown, it is worth it to snuff out the virus with an overall societal effort.

federal government that wants to avert both a medical and an economic disaster must decide decisively in favor of this strategy. However, it should make it clear that this is only a temporary intervention to avert the crisis. After Corona, these measures can and should be reversed. But now is not the time for sceptics: a society that wants to have the opportunity tomorrow to realise the development of diverse individual pursuits in a free social order must now summon up the solidarity to agree to the transfer of mobility data in this phase of the crisis.


Your contact:

Sabine Weiler (press office),   Phone: +49 (201) 8149-213

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