Coronavirus Spreading in Munich Shows Difficulty Halting New Bug

(Bloomberg) -- A business event in Munich set off a chain of coronavirus infections that began with an infected colleague from Shanghai who showed no symptoms during a trip to the German city. It’s the largest reported cluster of cases caused by human-to-human spread outside China.

According to auto-parts supplier Webasto SE, seven of its employees -- five German and two Chinese -- have been infected with the new coronavirus, the cause of a massive pneumonia outbreak in China that the World Health Organization declared a global emergency on Thursday.

Coronavirus Spreading in Munich Shows Difficulty Halting New Bug

The infection appears to have been transmitted while a Shanghai-based colleague was still incubating the virus. The woman attended meetings from Jan. 19 to 22 at Webasto’s headquarters in Stockdorf, on Munich’s outskirts, with no signs or symptoms of infection, but she became unwell on her Jan. 22 flight back to China. She tested positive for the 2019-nCoV virus four days later, doctors said in the New England Journal of Medicine on Thursday.

The cases show the difficulty of controlling the contagion using methods such as fever-screening at airports. Almost 10,000 people across 20 countries are confirmed to have been infected with the new virus, which was first reported in the central Chinese city of Wuhan a month ago.

Mitigation strategies for halting the spread of 2019-nCoV have been informed by experiences combating coronaviruses that cause severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, and Middle East respiratory syndrome. People don’t typically transmit those infections unless they have symptoms, said Benjamin Cowie, a professor of medicine at the University of Melbourne and an epidemiologist with the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity.

10-Year-Old Boy

Cases like the ones in Germany, and that of a 10-year-old boy in Shenzhen whose case was described last week, have complicated control measures, Cowie said in an interview Friday.

“With this information suggesting that there is at least the ability to isolate or detect the virus in asymptomatic or apparently asymptomatic individuals, that’s got significant implications for epidemiological control measures,” he said. “If we’re trying to identify cases when they’re not symptomatic, that’s impossible on a clinical basis, and that then becomes a lot harder to control.”

An analysis by U.S. researchers of screening travelers found the strategy will, at best, detect less than half of infected travelers. Those who are incubating their infection may feel healthy enough to travel but show no detectable symptoms, they said in a Jan. 28 study.

Need for Reassessment?

“The fact that asymptomatic persons are potential sources of 2019-nCoV infection may warrant a reassessment of transmission dynamics of the current outbreak,” Camilla Rothe and colleagues at the University Hospital LMU Munich, who investigated the cluster in Germany, said in a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine.

The first four cases in Germany had “mild” symptoms and were hospitalized primarily for public health purposes, the doctors said. They queried “whether such patients can be treated with appropriate guidance and oversight outside the hospital.”

Coronavirus Spreading in Munich Shows Difficulty Halting New Bug

The first of the German cases occurred in an otherwise healthy 33-year-old businessman, who became ill with a sore throat, chills, and muscle ache on Jan. 24. He had a fever and a cough the next day, but by the evening of the following day, he started feeling better and went back to work on Jan. 27, the same day his China-based colleague told company officials that she was ill.

Swabs of the back of the man’s nose and throat, and a sputum sample tested positive for 2019-nCoV. Follow-up tests found he still harbored high levels of the virus in his sputum on Jan. 29, a day after three other employees tested positive, including two who hadn’t been in contact with the colleague from China.

Patients with confirmed 2019-nCoV were isolated in a Munich infectious diseases unit. All seven people attended various meetings together in Stockdorf, the company said in a statement Friday.

Employees Spurned

Some 122 staffers have returned negative tests for the coronavirus, with a few test results still pending, according to the company.

Webasto, which has about 13,000 workers in 50 different locations, said it will keep its headquarters closed until next Monday. The company is preparing for employees to return to work Tuesday, Feb. 4, amid reports that its workforce is being subjected to discriminating behavior.

“We are receiving an increasing number of reports from employees that they and their families are being turned away from institutions, companies or businesses when it becomes known that they work for Webasto,” Chairman Holger Engelmann said. “We understand that the current situation is unsettling and also frightening for people, but it cannot be that normal everyday life is no longer possible for people who do not belong to the risk group. This is an enormous burden for the families of our employees.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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