Scientists studying the city at the epicenter of Germany’s first major outbreak said they had found antibodies to the virus in people who were asymptomatic and were not previously thought to be infected.
Initial results released on Thursday showed as much as 15 percent of the city might already have immunity – three times more than previously estimated.
The findings show the death rate for the virus in Germany is only 0.37 percent – five times lower than current estimates.
“This means gradual lockdown relaxation it is now possible, “Prof. Hendrik Streeck, virologist who led the research at the press conference.
“Because people in Germany are very careful and disciplined, we can now move on to the second stage.”
But Angela Merkel dispelled hopes of the lockdown at the start, told the Germans: “We can’t be careless now. We can quickly destroy what we have achieved. “
The study in the city of Gangelt in the Heinsberg district was the first in Europe to examine the effects of the virus on the whole community.
Scientists from the University of Bonn are testing about 1,000 people from 400 households for antibodies and signs of infection at this time.
Preliminary results based on about half the tests found that 2 percent of the population is currently infected and 14 percent have antibodies to the virus. Allowing overlapping which shows 15 percent of people in cities now have immunity – compared to previous estimates of 5 percent.
“15 percent is not far from the 60 percent we need for herd immunity,” said Prof. Gunther Hartmann, one of the study’s leaders.
“With 60 to 70 percent of herd immunity, the virus will completely disappear from the population. Then parents are no longer at risk. “
The numbers cannot be extrapolated throughout Germany because Gangelt has a higher infection rate. But the study authors say they are the reason for cautious optimism. A 15 percent immune level is enough to significantly slow the spread of the virus, they said in a joint statement.
The findings suggest the virus death rate might be lower than previously thought. The study found a mortality rate of 0.37 percent, compared with the current Johns Hopkins University estimate for Germany of 1.98 percent.
The study authors said their findings could be closer to the actual figures for the virus because they had detected so many previously unknown infections.
“The much lower mortality rate in Gangelt is explained by the fact that this study detected all people who were infected, including those who were not the symptoms or very mild illness, “they say.
Antibody testing for viruses still in the initial stages. Chinese scientists released research that confirmed that they had detected antibodies for the first time this week, but warned they could not detect any of the patients known to be infected.
It is unclear how long the immunity to the virus given by previous infections will last, although experience with the same virus shows it will be in the range of one year to 18 months.
“I think the most important thing that all governments can do to overcome this virus is to get reliable data,” Prof. Streeck, study leader, told the Telegraph. “We don’t know enough about this virus yet.”
The study authors say that the findings are a reason to start lifting the current general lock-up and move on to the stage of isolating the most vulnerable groups at risk.
Jens Spahn, the German health minister, previously suggested that locking loops could be made possible after Easter
“We see a positive trend, but it must continue,” Spahn said. “If that happens, we will be able to talk … about returning gradually to normal after the Easter holidays.”
But Mrs Merkel seems to be downplaying hopes for easing initial restrictions amid fears people might lack discipline about social distance during the Easter holidays.
“I want to be the first to tell you everything as it is and we can return to normal, but that’s not what happened,” he said.
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