The Hidden Virus
The Silence of Germany
An Investigation by: Alessandra Benignetti, Andrea Indini

The Silence About COVID

The genetic mapping of the virus that struck Codogno and the Lodi area is clear. The infectious disease specialist Massimo Galli has pointed his finger at the outbreak outside Munich in the second half of January. He is not afraid of being contradicted. The scientific results in his possession cannot be refuted and they explain to us how the Italian epidemic is the “daughter” of the flare-up that began on 20 January at the Stockdorf headquarters of the Webasto Group, a company that produces spare parts for cars. “The arrival in our country at the same time of a very similar strain by any other way seems frankly unlikely,” he explains to us by e-mail, pushing back against press releases issued by the Bavarian company boasting that it had contained the outbreak and had not had any contact with Italy and their two branches in Molinella (Bologna) and Venaria Reale (Turin).

To carefully reconstruct the chain of contagion, we have to take a step back in time. It is January 19th. A Chinese employee of Webasto China arrives from Shanghai. She has just celebrated New Year’s Eve with her parents from Wuhan. She has Covid but still doesn’t know it. The first symptoms have not yet appeared, and from 20 to 22 January, the day on which she catches the plane to go back home, she attends a series of corporate meetings during which she meets several colleagues. Her temperature begins to rise during the flight back to China. But it is now too late to contain the spread of the virus. The domino effect has begun and cannot be stopped. The first to fall ill is a 33-year-old who sits next to her at the first meeting, the one on January 20. Three days later he is already experiencing chills, a sore throat and muscle pain, the following day his temperature rises above 39 degrees and the dry cough begins. Within a few days, the number of infected rises to eight. Among these, according to some reconstructions carried out in recent months, there was also the patient who, between 24 and 26 January, reportedly travelled (always on business) to villages in the Lodi area. Caution must however be exercised in relation to these reports as it is not so easy to reconstruct the “close contacts” of the infected people since the symptoms appear two to seven days later. During this time the patient spreads the virus to all the people he meets and nothing can be done to prevent it from happening.

At Webasto in Stockdorf they realise they have a problem on January 26 when the (positive) result of the swab test that the Chinese colleague has undergone arrives.  The German colleague who had been ill in the previous few days also rushes to undergo a swab test. He too is positive. “Both are doing quite well, given the circumstances,” said CEO Holger Engelmann in an initial press release that announced that corporate travel “to and from China” would be stopped and all employees would be allowed to “work from home”. On January 28, however, the situation worsened: three other employees tested positive for the virus. Of these, only one had come into contact with “patient 0”, in other words the Chinese employee. The other two (“patient 3” and “patient 4”) had only had contact with the 33-year-old German.

The company is therefore forced to close, albeit only temporarily, the headquarters outside Munich, to cancel all business trips both abroad and within Germany and to have anyone who has had contact with the infected people to take a swab test. The management also rushes to sanitize all the offices. “We were able to sever the chain of infections – Engelmann says with satisfaction on January 29 – the fact that we have not yet had a case of coronavirus in one of the other Webasto sites demonstrates the effectiveness of our measures”. And although over the next few days the number of infected people rises to eight, after two weeks of quarantine, the Stockdorf site reopens its doors and receives praise from the president of the Bavarian Health Authority. “The consistency with which the company has acted in these exceptional circumstances is commendable,” commented the president of the authority, Andreas Zapf. “From the beginning we have been in close contact and have exchanged information in a very open and continuous way – he explains – the knowledge acquired through close collaboration with Webasto will also help us to analyse the epidemic.”

It was Galli who linked Stockdorf to the Lodi area and who, on the basis of molecular evidence, hypothesized a “relationship” between the virus isolated in Munich and the one that circulated in Codogno. “All of the initial epidemic in the red zone – he explains – comes from the contact that took place there, which could have allowed the virus to lurk below radar for almost four weeks before the problem was discovered in that geographical area and in other places as well”. A view shared also by Trevis Bedford, a researcher at the Fred Hutch Center in Seattle, who followed the genetic track of the new coronavirus to Germany: “It is the direct progenitor of the other viruses that appeared later”. But these “accusations” are promptly denied by Webasto headquarters.

“The outbreak of the infection at our site understandably created a lot of concern,” Engelmann publicly countered on March 10. “But, in close collaboration with the health authorities, we have been able to break the chain of infection within our company thanks to the rapid and decisive measures we have taken.” These claims were, in the same days, also backed up by the German health authorities. Rejecting the hypothesis of a direct connection between the Bavarian outbreak and the spread of the virus in Lombardy, the company specifies that “none of our infected colleagues, and not even their direct contacts, have been in Italy since 27 January 2020”. No information, however, is provided on the period prior to that date, the same period in which, according to the Milanese virologist, Covid arrived in the Lodi area. In response  to our request for clarification, the Webasto press office reiterates via email that “patient 1”, in other words the 33-year-old, “and our other colleagues who tested positive for the swab later, were not in Italy in January or February.

Further, the company has two sites in Italy, one in Molinella (in the province of Bologna), where cooling systems for cars are produced, and one in Venaria Reale (in the province of Turin), where cover systems for cars are produced. The Colturano office, a few kilometres from Milan, has been closed for nine years now. “In addition – Munich points out – the two Webasto branches in Italy have implemented all the measures laid down by the Italian Ministry of Health as well as the provisions of the government decrees in order to contain the spread of the virus and continue to function as usual”.

Mystery solved? Quite the contrary. Massimo Galli is not willing to give ground. The study in his possession, together with another that will be published in the next few days, demonstrate “an evident affinity between the first Italian sequences and the German one”. “Someone, either infected by one of the employees, or by the same lady from Shanghai who ‘imported’ the infection into Germany (in a bar? at the airport?) then transferred the infection to Italy – he explains to InsideOver – the arrival in our country, at the same time, of a very similar strain by another route seems frankly unlikely “.

The first work that the infectious disease specialist references is “Genomic characterization and phylogenetic analysis of Sars-CoV-2 in Italy” based on the analysis of “three complete genomes isolated from three of the first sixteen patients observed in Italy, none of which reported a recent history of travel abroad “. Without boring you on the technical-scientific part of the study, the results lead straight to the “outbreak reported between 20 and 24 January” in Munich. “However – it states – our data do not allow us to formulate hypotheses on the possible routes followed by the virus to reach Italy because, given the limited number of sequences sampled in the tree, it is impossible to establish the directionality of the transmission.” We can however reach some firm conclusions. First of all, Covid-19, or at least the most virulent strain, entered Northern Italy “between the second half of January and the beginning of February”, several weeks before Codogno’s “patient 1”. Secondly, “epidemiological data show that the first cases in Germany preceded the first cases in Italy by almost a month” and that, therefore, that strain “first entered Germany and then Italy”.