More than 10 times as many people in Germany may have been infected with coronavirus than thought, researchers have said, as Italy led swathes of Europe out of lockdown and officials said the continent’s outbreak was mostly past its peak.
Researchers from Bonn University said on Monday their preliminary study, based on field work in the town of Gangelt in Heinsberg municipality, which had one of the country’s highest death tolls, showed the risk of infection by asymptomatic carriers.
The researchers concluded from a random sample of 919 people that about 15% of Gangelt’s population had been infected, with a fatality rate of 0.37%. Extrapolating nationwide, they said about 1.8 million people living in Germany must have been infected, against 160,000 confirmed cases so far.
About one in five of those infected had no symptoms, they said, underlining the importance of physical distancing and basic hygiene to keep the disease at bay.
“Every supposedly healthy person we encounter can unknowingly carry the virus,” said Martin Exner, the head of the university’s institute for hygiene and public health and a co-author of the study. “We must be aware of this and act accordingly.”
As millions of Italians went back to work, the EU’s agency for disease control said only five European countries were not yet showing a clear downward trend in their outbreaks.
Second only to the US in its Covid-19 death tally of nearly 29,000, Italy sent more than 4 million construction and factory workers back to their jobs after reporting its lowest toll since the government imposed a national lockdown on 9 March.
After nine weeks of confinement, the country’s 60 million residents were finally free to stroll in streets and parks and to visit relatives. Restaurants reopened for takeaway orders, but bars will remain shut and masks are obligatory in public spaces indoors.
Italy was the first western democracy to impose a strict nationwide lockdown and the long weeks of confinement appear to be weighing on the nation’s psyche: a poll by the Piepoli Institute showed 62% of Italians thought they they would need psychological support.
With continental Europe’s second highest death toll, Spain, too, began cautiously easing its way out of 48 days of lockdown, with Spaniards allowed out to exercise for the first time on Saturday but with face masks mandatory on public transport.
Small shops – including hairdressers – began receiving clients again by individual appointment on Monday, while bars and restaurants were allowed to start offering a takeaway service. About 10% of Greece’s businesses, including barber shops and bookstores, also reopened on Monday.
Portugal allowed small shops, hair salons and car dealers to resume business, with masks to be worn in stores and on public transport, while Slovenia, Poland and Hungary partially reopened public spaces and selected businesses.
In Germany, museums, places of worship, playgrounds and zoos also reopened their doors, while Austria sent senior high school students back to class to prepare for this month’s graduation exams. Some Belgian office workers returned to work on Monday.
“It appears that the initial wave of transmissions has passed its peak,” Andrea Ammon, the director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, told the European parliament.
Ammon said that of the 31 European countries the agency monitors, only Bulgaria was still recording an increase in cases, while Poland, Romania, Sweden and Britain – which has seen Europe’s highest rise in so-called “excess deaths” above the five-year average – had seen “no substantial changes in the last 14 days”.
Russia, which the agency does not study, is rapidly becoming Europe’s blackspot, with officials in Moscow urging residents to stay at home in an effort to contain the growing daily tally of new cases. “The threat is apparently on the rise,” the mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, told citizens.
Russia registered a near-record in new daily cases on Monday as the number of total infections surpassed 145,000, cementing its position as the top reporter of new cases in Europe. Health officials reported 10,581 new infections over the last 24 hours, only 52 less than Sunday’s record. The country has so far recorded 145,268 cases and 1,356 deaths.
In further developments:
The coronavirus has infected more than 3.5 million people and caused nearly 250,000 deaths worldwide, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker.
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