No, Matt Hancock: biotech giants are not leading Germany’s coronavirus fight | Peter Kuras | Opinion

When Olfert Landt first heard about a novel virus ravaging parts of China, he sprung into action, and by the 10 January, according to Bloomberg, the microbiologist, working with researchers at Berlin’s Charité hospital, had developed a viable test for the disease.

TIB Molbiol Syntheselabor GmbH, the small company Landt leads, had produced more than 4 million tests by 12March. It’s the kind of story that has fuelled claims that Germany’s strong biotech industry has provided the country with a unique advantage in combating the coronavirus. Donald Trump retweeted the Bloomberg story about Landt. The UK’s health minister, Matt Hancock, who held his first press conference on Thursday after recovering from coronavirus himself, didn’t mention Landt, but he was quick to point to the strength of the German pharmaceutical industry as the primary reason for the country’s aggressive testing regime and low death rate: “My German counterpart, for instance,” Hancock said, “could call upon 100 test labs ready and waiting when the crisis stuck, thanks in large part to Roche, one of the biggest diagnostic companies in the world.”

It’s easy to understand why the UK, in particular, is feeling defensive: while Germany has tested nearly a million samples for Covid-19, the UK, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, has tested just 152,979 people for the Corona virus according to the Department of Health and Social Care has tested just 195,524 people up until yesterday morning.

But Hancock’s attempt to attribute Germany’s success to a strong biotech sector rings false. The four million tests produced by Landt’s company have been distributed throughout the world. Indeed, the biochemist told Deutsche Welle that he would like to start delivering tests to Russia, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Iran – countries that are currently under embargo.

For all its might in the industry, Germany’s output is dwarfed by the scale of the US pharmaceutical industry: Germany captured 4.01% of global pharmaceutical sales in 2016, whereas the US controlled 44.45% of the market in the same year, and the UK captured 2.35%. Indeed, Hoffmann-La Roche, the company to which Hancock seems to have attributed the strength of the German testing infrastructure, is Swiss, not German.

Hancock’s errors disguise inconvenient truths about the German situation. Though Roche has developed tests and manufactures equipment, it is laboratories at universities, hospitals and government agencies that have taken the lead in testing for Covid-19 in Germany. Private laboratories have played a crucial role in Germany’s testing regime, but big business has not; according to statistics compiled by Akkredierte Labore in der Medizin, a trade group for the medical diagnostics industry, the six largest private providers of Covid-19 tests together account for 36% of the laboratories currently testing in Germany. Indeed, the distributed nature of the German response can be seen in the rapid increase in the number of facilities doing testing. Between 2 and 8 March, 43 laboratories conducted 36,067 tests. Last week, 97 laboratories conducted 313,957 tests.

It isn’t an accident that, unlike the UK, Germany has had such success in engaging a wide network of laboratories to conduct Covid-19 testing. The country’s federal system has long assigned the national government to a coordinating role, and regional autonomy over large parts of the healthcare system may have helped to create more resilient systems, better able to coordinate the work of different laboratories.

Even as the country’s more distributed healthcare system has helped to spread the burden of testing more evenly, a strong bureaucratic state has stepped in to help coordinate testing, containment and treatment efforts. In Bavaria, teachers and other furloughed state employees have been reassigned to service at the health departments, where they help to coordinate the logistics of the response.

Despite the success of Germany’s response to the pandemic so far, many voices in the country have called for caution. The virus seems to have gained a foothold relatively late here, which has allowed for a more coordinated response than would have been possible in Italy or China. Even so, and despite aggressive testing, it is still entirely possible that the number of cases will spike, overwhelming the healthcare system and leading to much higher mortality.

Still, if current trends continue, Germany will have shown itself to be uniquely capable among western nations of dealing with a global pandemic. The huge number of tests and its low mortality rate can be attributed to a number of different factors – the relative youth of many people infected by the virus and potential underreporting especially but the country’s proximity to a major Swiss biotech firm is very low among them indeed. If Hancock insists on reducing the success of the German response to a single factor, he would do far better to look at continued investment into the country’s health system.

Germany has more hospital beds per person than anywhere else in Europe – 8.1 per 1000 inhabitants, compared with 3.2 in Italy, 2.8 in the US, and 2.6 in the UK. These hospitals host some of the testing facilities that have enabled Germany to respond to the crisis so aggressively. For now, they also have the capacity to treat patients from France and Italy while other healthcare systems collapse under the strain of the pandemic.

Peter Kuras is a writer and translator based in Berlin

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