Europe Economy

Germany faces 'crucial' test over whether it can contain major coronavirus outbreaks

Key Points
  • Germany has reported a further outbreak of coronavirus cases at a slaughterhouse in Lower Saxony on Tuesday.
  • It's the latest in a series of cases that have emerged in the country's meat-processing industry.
  • Two districts are now back in lockdown.
A doctor of the German Red Cross (DRK) dressed in full PPE takes a throat swab sample from a local resident in Guetersloh, Germany.
Sean Gallup

Germany has reported a further outbreak of coronavirus cases at a slaughterhouse in Lower Saxony, the latest in a series of infections that have been seen in the country's meat-processing industry.

German media reported late Tuesday that the factory in Wildeshausen is the latest meat-processing plant to see an outbreak of the virus, with 23 workers testing positive.

The new upsurge is still dwarfed by the massive outbreak seen at a plant in the district of Gütersloh in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), where 1,550 workers have so far tested positive for the coronavirus, Deutsche Welle reported late Tuesday.

That outbreak, which is run by Tönnies — the largest meat-processing firm in Germany — led to NRW's State Premier Armin Laschet announcing Tuesday that the district would be going into lockdown until June 30. Restrictive measures were later expanded to a second district, Warendorf, where some of the workers live. The lockdown affects around 650,000 people.

"The important thing now is to try and contain this outbreak and prevent it from entering the general population and making it unstoppable," Thomas Kamradt, president of the German Society for Immunology, told CNBC Wednesday.

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"Currently it's very localized and the important thing is to keep it like that and prevent it from further spreading," he told CNBC's "Squawk Box Europe," noting that "there is something in general about the conditions at these meat-processing plants ... that seems to give optimal conditions to the virus spread."  

The outbreaks at German slaughterhouses are not new, with at least four major flare-ups reported at different meat industry plants in May. But they have shone a light on the industry known for controversial working and living conditions.

In this aerial view the Toennies meat packaging plant stands temporarily closed following a Covid-19 outbreak among workers there during the coronavirus pandemic in the town of Rheda-Wiedenbrueck on June 23, 2020 near Guetersloh, Germany.
Sean Gallup

Most slaughterhouse workers come from eastern European countries like Romania and Bulgaria and are employed by subcontractors rather than the meat-processing firms themselves, thus pay is generally low and workers often live in close (and often in cramped) quarters, making it easy for a virus to spread, experts note. Some critics of the industry have even likened working conditions in the country's slaughterhouses to "modern slavery." 

Nonetheless, the industry is not the only sector dealing with outbreaks of the virus, with other clusters having emerged in institutions for asylum seekers and refugees and among seasonal harvest workers, according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Germany's public health body.

The RKI said Monday that a large Covid-19 outbreak in the district of Goettingen in Lower Saxony was traced to family gatherings and another, in Magdeburg in the state of Saxony-Anhalt, emerged in several schools that are now closed. "Major outbreaks" continue to emerge in retirement and nursing homes, the RKI said, and in Berlin, an outbreak of 85 cases has been linked to members of a religious community.

'Second wave' fears

The district-wide lockdown will be an important litmus test as to whether Germany, a country that has been seen as a poster child during the coronavirus pandemic in Europe, for keeping its death toll low, can suppress major regional outbreaks quickly. To date, Germany has recorded 192,786 coronavirus cases and 8,924 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Germany has already been lauded for its quick initial response to the virus, aiming to contain its spread early on with extensive testing, contact tracing and confinement, as clusters of the virus began to appear in February and March, when a full national lockdown was implemented. As that has been eased, now the focus is on keeping the virus at bay.

]An apartment complex used by Toennies as a residence for foreign workers from eastern Europe during the coronavirus pandemic in Verl on June 20, 2020 near Guetersloh, Germany.
Alexander Koerner

"The crucial signpost to watch is whether the new outbreak can be contained on the local district level" with Tuesday's measures, Carsten Nickel, deputy director of research at Teneo Intelligence, said in a note Tuesday.

"If this were to prove impossible, the NRW government in Duesseldorf would probably have to consider moving back to restrictive measures either in the entire region of Westphalia, or perhaps all of NRW – Germany's largest state with a population of around 18 million. The coming week or two will thus be crucial for gauging what the previously discussed risk of a second wave may mean in terms of size and restrictions," he added.

Berlin will be keen to quell outbreaks quickly, especially as they are seen as responsible for a sharp rise in the virus' reproduction or "R" rate (a measure of how many people, on average, an infected person could go on to infect).

The Robert Koch Institute said at the weekend that the R rate had risen to 2.88, although on Tuesday the rate (which is estimated using a four-day moving average of the number of new cases and reflects the infection situation about one to two weeks ago) had fallen to 2.02.