An investigation by Alessandra Benignetti, Andrea Indini

The German Void

Covid-19 can insidiously hide anywhere. Even in a saltshaker. And by so doing even the simplest of gestures, such as passing a colleague the salt at the canteen, can act as a dangerous vehicle of infection. This is how on 22 January patient 5 and patient 4 of the Webasto cluster were infected, at the headquarters of the car component manufacturing company in Stockford, a residential area inhabited by 4000 people west of Munich in Bavaria. Maybe they did not even exchange glance.They might not even have exchanged glances. Back to back, sitting at two different tables. And yet two days later patient 5 already displayed the first symptoms: fever, nausea, vomit, cough, chest pains, fatigue, loss of appetite. The ways of Covid are infinite, and however accurate “contact tracing” might be, there is always some percentage of uncertainty.

“Another limitation of our study is that… not all infectious encounters could be reconstructed”; so reads an article published on 15 May on the science journal The Lancet, written by specialists of the Bavarian authority for Health and Food Safety at the Robert Koch Institute, of Berlin’s Charité University Hospital and other German health authorities. Those same experts who followed the developments of the cluster in Bavaria, to this day, the first example of human to human transmission in Europe. During the “exposure period”, following the arrival from Shanghai on January 19 in Stockdorf of a Chinese company employee who already manifested the first symptoms of Sars-Cov-2 ,”the company held business and social events”. “It is possible – the infectious disease specialists on Lancet add – that an infectious case might have met a successor case so briefly that neither of the two remembered the encounter.”

This is why those who, like Massimo Galli, director of the Department of Infectious Diseases at Milan’s Sacco Hospital, believe that the virus reached Lombardy at the end of January via the Stockdorf cluster, prefer to follow the “genetic trail” rather than tracking. According to the conclusions reached by his German colleagues the outbreak was isolated in a few weeks with a total of 16 people infected, 10 of which were company employees. According to the Sacco hospital expert, the virus could have travelled further, reaching the Lodigiano area, one of Italy’s first red zones. “Our data show that the Sars-Cov-2 isolates which infected the Italian patients involved in the early epidemic in northern Italy and also isolated from other European and Latin American patients reporting contacts with Italy, are closely related to the same strain isolated during one of the first European clusters which occurred in Bavaria in late January 2020”, we read in a study by the title “Genomic characterization and phylogenetic analysis of SARSCOV2 in Italy,” published by Galli on the Journal of Medical Virology on 24 March.

However, Webasto refutes Galli’s version, assuring that “none of the infected employees” travelled to Italy “during the months of January and February”. In a statement issued on 10 March the company specified that “none of the infected colleagues, nor any of their direct contacts, travelled to Italy after 27 January 2020”. It is unclear whether anybody did so before that date. We tried to investigate further by contacting the Bavarian company directly. However, when we asked whether any work or pleasure related travel to Italy before 27 January could be ruled out, that being the day when the employee from Shanghai tested positive to coronavirus, the answer was particularly vague. “ We know that theories have been published in Italy stating that the virus reached Italy though Webasto, while there are other medical theories, for example that of Berlin’s Charité hospital, which claim that that part of the virus is too dissimilar to be of the same origin”.

The numbers provided by the company on the infections also don’t add up. A statement issued on 11 February referred to 8 hospitalized cases: but on 4 February according to the figures provided in the report published by Lancet the number of infected patients was up to 16, 10 of which were Stockdorf employees. Another point also attracted our attention. In a series of interviews with infected company employees, drawn up and provided to us by Webasto itself, one of the employees describes how it felt to test positive. “I wasn’t too worried for myself” – he said– “but for the people I had been in contact with, including my young niece, my wife, my daughter and the friends I had been on holiday with on the snow. “

We asked the company if they knew exactly where the employee had gone skiing, however we received no answer on the subject. What is certain is that the Czech Republic is among the Germans’ favourite low cost skiing destinations, and while Switzerland is too expensive for many, Austria and Italy are very popular with   Bavarians. That the virus might have spread across the ski slopes remains but a mere assumption, yet the fact remains that it did get one of the infected employees worried. Moreover, how Covid reached Codogno remains a mystery to this day. However, the German version which refutes a priori that the virus was brought to the Lodigiano territory from Bavaria, still has many grey areas which need to be clarified.