The mystery behind Germany's low coronavirus death rate

Anna Noryskiewicz
·3 min read

Berlin — Compared to other countries, the number of deaths caused by the novel coronavirus in Germany has been surprisingly low. 

According to the country's federal health agency, The Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the mortality rate is currently at less than 0.5%. It's remarkable when compared to the grim numbers in Italy or Spain. Italy has reported more than 86,000 confirmed cases and over 9,000 deaths, which would seem to work out to a mortality rate of roughly 10%. Meanwhile Germany has reported over 49,000 cases but only 342 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

But how reliable are the figures?

The statistics of individual countries can only be compared to a certain extent, and the simple division of the number of deaths by the number of reported cases is not a very reliable method, according to Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit, professor of virology at the University of Hamburg. 

"In each country the number of unreported cases varies because of the different diagnostic capacities," he told CBS News. 

As RKI's research data shows, many mild cases were detected from the beginning and included in Germany's statistics, hence the mortality rate fell proportionally.

However, more people who are currently ill could die in the coming days or weeks. Even if the number of new infections is halted at some point, the death rate will continue to rise until all of the infected people have either recovered or passed away.

Some Italian officials have suggested that Italy is more rigorous about postmortem testing for coronavirus than Germany, meaning some coronavirus-related deaths could remain undiscovered in Germany.

Professor Karl Lauterbach, an epidemiologist and member of the German parliament, told CBS News that we will only be able to determine how deadly the SARS-CoV-2 virus really is, and how the death rates differ from country to country, some time after the pandemic.

Widespread testing 

One explanation for the lower number of deaths in Germany is the fact that the country started widespread testing comparatively early and therefore managed to respond at an early stage of the outbreak.

More than half a million coronavirus tests have been done in the country to date. Lauterbach told CBS News that Germany wants to expand its testing capacities to up to 200,000 tests per day.

Widespread testing allows Germany to follow South Korea's approach to containing  the outbreak. Along with the implementation of social distancing measures, leading scientists say massive testing plays a key role in getting the pandemic under control.

Virologist Christian Drosten, who developed the first coronavirus test available in Germany, told various news outlets that the country recognized its outbreak early and therefore gained time to enact measures to help "flatten the curve" and prepare the health care system for a growing number of seriously ill patients.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story included a quote World Health Organization that has since been removed. An earlier version of this story also said Germany does not conduct postmortem tests for coronavirus. It's unclear what Germany's postmortem testing process is.  

2 dead, dozens have COVID-19 at California nursing home

Protesters show up at packed Louisiana church

Germany's low coronavirus death rate