Coronavirus: How dangerous is COVID-19?

Coronavirus: How dangerous is COVID-19?

This article gives you an overview of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and the disease COVID-19. The article will be updated regularly.

The current news is still determined by one topic again and again: the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and the disease COVID-19 it causes. First detected in late 2019, the virus quickly spread worldwide and became a pandemic. Despite protective measures and vaccines that were developed comparatively quickly, there were countless infections and a large number of deaths. Many people are unsettled after several “waves” and new virus variants; others are somewhat annoyed. How dangerous is the coronavirus? What should you know about the infection, and what measures apply in Germany? We give you an overview and help you to find answers to your most important questions.

What is the coronavirus?

Strictly speaking, when people talk about “the coronavirus”, they mean a particular subspecies (first discovered in 2019). In turn, these viruses belong to the RNA viruses group (RNA = ribonucleic acid). So-called glycoproteins are stored in their shell like a crown – the coronaviruses (corona = crown) owe their name to this peculiarity.

Coronaviruses are mainly found in animals and can cause respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases. However, due to mutations, several coronaviruses can also affect humans and are transmitted from person to person. Coronaviruses then usually cause respiratory problems. Gastrointestinal diseases are also possible, but their severity is relatively insignificant.

Infections with coronaviruses usually occur in the winter months and cause around five to 30 per cent of all acute respiratory diseases. These usually only affect the upper respiratory tract (nose and throat with runny nose and sore throat ), are generally mild and heal within a week. However, if the infection spreads to the lower respiratory tract, severe courses with pneumonia and inflammation of the bronchial tubes occur. A simultaneous respiratory tract infection with other viruses or bacteria can also lead to more serious clinical pictures.


SARS-CoV-2, COVID-19 or 2019nCoV – what is it?

At the end of 2019, pneumonia caused by a previously unknown virus was noticed in the Chinese region of Wuhan. In January 2020, this virus was identified for the first time and assigned to the coronavirus family. It was initially referred to as 2019-nCoV  (2019 novel coronavirus). In February, the virus was officially renamed SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2).

It closely resembles the 2003 SARS virus (SARS-CoV-1), both from a genetic point of view and in terms of the mechanism by which the virus damages the body. However, SARS-CoV-2 is significantly more infectious, transmitting more efficiently and spreading faster. Fortunately, however, the mortality rate from infection with SARS-CoV-2 is lower than that of SARS-CoV-1.

The disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus is called COVID-19  (Corona Virus Disease 2019).

SARS-CoV-2, COVID-19 and Coronavirus: what’s the difference?

The name coronavirus refers to a whole family of viruses. The subspecies of the coronavirus that is currently spreading is called SARS-CoV-2 (beginning of 2019-nCoV). The disease that results from infection with this virus is known as COVID-19.

Can the coronavirus mutate?

In the meantime, numerous mutations of the virus have been discovered, which have displaced the original virus variant. These are sometimes more contagious, can escape the immune system more easily or result in more severe disease progression than the original type. The following are particularly worth mentioning:

  • the variant Alpha (B.1.1.7) discovered in December 2020 in England
  • the Beta and Gamma variants, first identified in Brazil and South Africa
  • the delta variant, which was initially widespread in India and soon supplanted the other virus variants
  • the omicron variant is currently considered predominant

Within this, there can be subtypes, such as the particularly contagious omicron subtype BA.5.

These and other mutations are viewed with concern since increased contagion combined with the exponentially growing spread can quickly lead to a significant increase in infections and, thus, in severe courses and deaths. However, the vaccines currently approved in Germany also show good, if somewhat reduced, effectiveness against the virus variant.


How do you get infected with the coronavirus?

The SARS-CoV-2 virus is transmitted by virus-containing droplets emitted by an infected person, for example, when speaking, coughing or sneezing. On the one hand, these droplets can be inhaled directly by a healthy person, leading to infection (droplet infection). Aerosols, i.e. the smallest droplets in the air emitted when speaking, play a unique role.

On the other hand, virus-containing droplets can also land on surfaces and objects. When touching these contaminated surfaces, the virus gets on the hands, and when the face is later touched, it brings it to the mouth, nose and eyes (smear infection). From there, it can enter the body of a healthy person through the mucous membranes and cause an infection. The virus can survive for a few days on contaminated objects. Therefore, direct contact with sick people is not necessarily required for infection. SARS-CoV-2 could also be transmitted, for example, via doorknobs or handles on public transport. Regular hand washing protects against this transmission route.

According to current knowledge, smear infection is a minor transmission route.

Can you get infected through animals?

The origin of SARS-CoV-2 still needs to be clarified. One possible explanation is that the virus was first transmitted to humans from an animal at a market in Wuhan.

In the meantime, it has also been confirmed that, depending on the animal species, transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from human to animal cannot be ruled out. Individual cases have already been reported in which dogs or cats became infected with the virus from humans. Cats are affected more often than dogs. This must be reported to the veterinary office if a pet tests positive.

Ferrets and mink can also become infected. Cases in the Netherlands and Denmark showed that mink can transmit the virus back to humans. In November 2020, Denmark was ordered to kill all mink on mink farms nationwide as a precautionary measure after several people contracted a mutated form of the virus (referred to as Cluster 5) from mink. Whether this form of the virus poses a greater risk is disputed. 1 There was also a report about a veterinarian who is said to have contracted the disease from an infected cat.

The transmission route from person to person is still decisive for the spread of the virus. Therefore, healthy people don’t need to limit contact with pets. Instead, complying with general hygiene standards, such as careful hand washing, is sufficient. In the case of infections with the coronavirus, however, care must be taken to protect the animals as much as possible so as not to infect them.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

SARS-CoV-2 primarily affects the respiratory tract. Complaints in this area indicate infection. But there are also systemic symptoms – i.e., they affect the whole body. Typical signs of COVID-19 are:

Infected people often report a general feeling of illness. Other symptoms are possible, such as body aches, shivering, nauseadiarrhoea, and even skin changes.

The symptoms are similar to those of influenza, which is usually characterized by sudden onset of fever over 39 °C and severe headache and body aches. In many cases, however, the coronavirus infection causes only mild symptoms and resembles a cold. A course without any signs of illness is also possible.

In this article, we have put together detailed information about your possible symptoms. You can also read here about what to do if you suspect an infection with the coronavirus.


Symptoms in pregnant women and children

In children, COVID-19 is often mild or even asymptomatic. However, cases of an inflammatory syndrome associated with fever, rash, conjunctivitis, accelerated heartbeat, abdominal pain, and vomiting resulting from an exaggerated immune response and resembling Kawasaki syndrome have also been observed. Doctors refer to this as a pediatric inflammatory, multisystem syndrome, or “multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children” (MIS-C). Studies also suggest that COVID-19 may be associated with more frequent vomiting, diarrhoea and abdominal pain in children compared to adults.

Pregnant women are believed to have a higher risk of serious illnesses. Therefore, caution is advisable to avoid contagion with the virus during pregnancy. A febrile infection can also have severe consequences for the unborn child, especially in early pregnancy. Pregnant women can also be vaccinated against COVID-19 for this reason. According to current knowledge, transmission to the unborn child is possible but rare.

Coronavirus test: how is the diagnosis made?

Due to the typical symptoms, an infection with the coronavirus can easily be mistaken for the flu or a cold. A precise diagnosis is, therefore, only possible with an appropriate test. There are different types of tests. The most important are:

  • PCR tests: The virus or its RNA (i.e., the virus’s genetic information) can be directly detected using a nose and throat swab. PCR stands for polymerase chain reaction. This process takes a few hours, so those tested usually receive their test results within 24 to 48 hours.
  • Rapid Antigen Tests:  These tests can provide results within 15 minutes. The analysis material (usually from the nose or throat swab) is tested for antigens, i.e. particular proteins. These rapid tests (also available as self-tests) are suitable for detecting highly contagious people. However, the method is considered less reliable, so a positive result should be rechecked with a PCR test. At the same time, a negative test is no guarantee that an infection is not present.
  • Antibody tests:  They test the blood for antibodies the body produces against the coronavirus when infected. The test can only be carried out about 14 days after infection, so it is unsuitable for indicating an acute illness. However, a previous infection can be detected. However, it must be noted that the antibodies are no longer detectable for some time after an infection, but this cannot be equated with a lack of immunity.

When should you get tested?

If you discover signs of illness that could indicate COVID-19, doing a rapid antigen test and seeking medical advice makes sense. The doctor then decides whether a PCR test should be carried out, considering the currently applicable criteria (recommendations of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) and national test strategy).

If you suspect you have contracted the coronavirus, please do not go to the doctor’s office to avoid infecting others in the waiting room. You can seek advice by calling your family doctor’s practice or the medical on-call service on 116117. They will help you to correctly assess the risk and decide which next steps make sense.


If you are infected with the coronavirus, what do you do?

To prevent further spread, you should immediately avoid contact with other people at the first sign of illness or seek medical advice at an early stage if a positive test result is available. Infected people are asked to go into domestic isolation. A stay in the hospital is only necessary in severe cases.

Relatives and close contacts of infected people are usually also isolated, as there is a high probability of being infected. The rules for quarantine at home can vary depending on the federal state – the health department decides whether isolation is necessary in individual cases.

The course of infection – how dangerous is the virus?

The incubation period – i.e. the time between infection with the virus and the appearance of the first symptoms of the disease – can last up to 14 days. During this time, transmission to other people is possible.

Most of the time, COVID-19 is mild. The signs of the disease recede after about a week without needing therapy – affected people are considered cured when there are no more symptoms or the virus is no longer detectable. An infection can even be completely asymptomatic.

 However, the risk of a more severe course is significantly increased, especially in older people or people with previous illnesses ( e.g. coronary heart diseasediabetes mellitus, bronchial asthmaCOPD or other respiratory diseases) or overweight.

In the course of the disease, bilateral pneumonia, sepsis (blood poisoning), and multi-organ failure can occur. In these cases, inpatient treatment in the hospital and, under certain circumstances, treatment in the intensive care unit with artificial ventilation may be necessary.

Consequences of COVID-19

After an infection has gone through, the antibodies formed initially provide some protection against renewed infection. Since immunity decreases comparatively quickly after a COVID-19 infection, those who have recovered are also advised to be vaccinated to boost their immunity.

Even after a comparatively mild infection, many long-term consequences are possible. Comparatively often, those affected suffer from persistent exhaustion and numerous other complaints after recovering from COVID-19, which are now referred to as long-COVID or post-COVID syndrome.


mortality in COVID-19

The mortality rate (lethality) shows substantial differences between the individual countries because it depends, among other things, on medical care’s (current) possibilities. In addition, it has evolved significantly over time.

Initial data analyses by the WHO (World Health Organization) initially put the lethality rate between 0.7 and 4 per cent 2, depending on the region. However, these values ​​have now been significantly exceeded. According to the current status, the average mortality worldwide is 1.06 per cent; in Germany, it is currently 0.45 per cent (as of October 28, 2022). 3

How is COVID-19 treated?

Furthermore, work is being done at full speed on developing a therapy for COVID-19. Symptomatic treatment is often used to alleviate the symptoms. Some medications are now available to treat the condition. These include the anti-inflammatory drug dexamethasone and monoclonal (artificially produced) antibodies. For example, the antiviral drug Paxlovid®, which is administered in pill form, can help to prevent severe and fatal courses if administered early.

In addition, infections with other viruses or bacteria are prevented so as not to aggravate the disease further. This also includes the prevention of thrombosis with blood thinners, as autopsies of deceased COVID-19 patients have shown that pulmonary embolism often occurs.

Intensive medical monitoring in the hospital is only necessary if the respiratory tract is severely impaired. Here, you can find more information about the treatment of COVID-19 and the possible medication.

How can you protect yourself from the coronavirus?

A standard, hygienic way of dealing with yourself and others, as is always recommended during the flu season, is also suitable for preventing infection with the coronavirus. The WHO recommends the following measures to protect against the coronavirus and to prevent it from spreading:

  1. Regular and thorough hand washing with soap and water for at least 20 to 30 seconds. If this is not possible, the hands can also be disinfected. However, use a disinfectant that is suitable for combating viruses.
  2. Cough and sneeze into a handkerchief or the crook of your arm – this is how infected people (who may not even know they are infected) prevent the pathogens from getting on their hands and infecting others.
  3. Use of paper handkerchiefs that are discarded after one use.
  4. Keep your distance from other people (recommendation: at least one and a half to two meters). This is especially true if these people show symptoms of an illness.
  5. Wear a face mask: A face mask is recommended, especially on public transport or in large crowds where it is impossible to keep your distance.
  6. Do not touch your face, mouth, eyes or nose if possible. In this way, pathogens that may be on the hands do not get into the body.
  7. No hand greeting. If you accidentally shake hands, wash your hands immediately afterwards.
  8. If several people are in a room, you should exchange the air with fresh air and reduce any viral load by regular ventilation (especially shock ventilation).

According to experts, wearing a face mask in public can help protect other people and thus slow down the spread of the coronavirus – provided it is used correctly and all other safety measures are observed. Depending on the type of mouthguard, this also protects yourself (FFP mask) or, above all, protects others (surgical mask). It is not advisable to wear everyday masks made of fabric, as the latter only has a low protective effect. Rubber gloves are also not recommended in everyday life to protect against infection.

Vaccinations to protect against infection

Research into developing a vaccination against SARS-CoV-2 was carried out at high pressure, so the first vaccine was approved in December 2020. This is a so-called mRNA vaccine. More vaccines were gradually approved so that vector, protein or inactivated whole virus vaccines are now available in addition to mRNA vaccines.

Two vaccinations are required for a complete primary immunization. Refresher vaccinations (booster vaccinations) help improve vaccination protection in the long term, especially regarding virus variants. The Standing Vaccination Commission (STIKO) publishes differentiated recommendations for different groups of people.

A pneumococcal vaccination or a vaccination against influenza is also recommended for specific groups. This is intended to prevent a simultaneous and, therefore, more risky infection with SARS-CoV-2 and pneumococci or influenza viruses. It can also help rule out flu more quickly when symptoms appear or, conversely, avoid unnecessary coronavirus tests and quarantines.

Course of the coronavirus pandemic so far

At the end of 2019, there was an increase in pneumonia in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the trigger for which was unknown and which soon led to the first deaths. In January 2020, a new coronavirus was identified as the cause. A connection between the infection in the so-called “Patient 0” and a visit to a fish and seafood market in Wuhan is suspected, but the exact origin is unclear. One theory is that the virus mutated and was transmitted from a wild animal to the first affected person.

The virus first spread to Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and China. It quickly spread to other Southeast Asian countries as well. The first cases outside of the Asian continent appeared in Australia, the USA and France at the end of January. However, subsequent examinations of stored blood samples from patients with pneumonia show that the virus could have arrived in France by the end of 2019.

On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared an international public health emergency to prevent further spread. Since COVID-19 continued to spread despite the measures taken, the WHO declared the outbreak a pandemic on March 11, 2020, i.e. a disease that has spread across all continents. Measures have been born worldwide to end the pandemic as quickly as possible.

Corona in Europe and Germany

The virus was first detected in Europe (late January 2020) in France and then in Germany but quickly spread across the continent.

In Germany and other countries, drastic protective measures were taken as part of the “first wave”, which were relaxed in many places in the summer of 2020 due to their success. While Germany initially seemed to have survived the worst, the number of infections in many regions rose sharply again at the beginning of autumn. The number of daily new infections and deaths from COVID-19 was higher in the “second wave” than before.

The “third wave” led to extreme measures such as the so-called “federal emergency brake” with a far-reaching lockdown. In the summer of 2021, the situation in Germany finally eased again, but virus variants soon led to a “fourth wave”. In the autumn and winter of 2021, the infections were again higher. From mid-February 2022, a decrease in new infections was observed, but soon, there was a renewed increase due to the newly spreading omicron variant.


Current measures in Germany

Even if an official end to the pandemic is discussed again and again, there are more infections and deaths every day. Citizens are, therefore, still encouraged to behave responsibly and contribute to breaking chains of infection.


  • Find out about the current rules in your region and remain cautious. The federal government provides information about the current regulations here.
  • The so-called 7-day incidence is an important key figure, but the number of hospital admissions (hospitalization) and the occupancy of the intensive care beds are also considered indicators.
  • The regional occurrence of infection can impact contact restrictions, opening shops, restaurants, or leisure facilities, and participating in significant events.
  •  mask requirement may apply in certain areas of life; the specific requirements vary from region to region.
  • As part of a nationwide vaccination campaign, all people willing and able to be vaccinated are currently offered the opportunity to protect themselves with free COVID and booster vaccinations.
  • After contact with the sick, you should isolate yourself and observe whether symptoms appear.
  • A nationwide Corona app is used to improve the reporting chains, which can send a warning after contact with a person who has been proven to be infected. The app can also verify whether you have been vaccinated, recovered, or currently tested negative.
  • Rapid tests are essential for detecting infections early and breaking chains of infection, so testing may be mandatory in certain areas.
  • Before you travel, find the applicable regulations, such as a test or quarantine requirement for entry from risk areas, high-incidence areas or virus-variant areas. Exceptions often apply to vaccinated and recovered people. Please note the travel and safety information for the individual countries, which can be obtained from the Foreign Office daily.

Although the situation is classified as severe (the risk to the health of the population in Germany is considered high), there is no reason to panic. Nevertheless, one should pay attention to the recommended security measures. It is essential to stay informed about the situation and to follow the recommended hygiene measures and the recommendations of the government and health institutions.

What is the current situation, and where can you find updates?

Make sure you only obtain information from trustworthy sources, as misinformation and rumours, such as those widely spread on social media, fuel unnecessary fears or falsely make scientifically sensible measures appear unfounded.

The following sources can help you to find out about the current status:


Protective measures: meaningfulness and criticism

Even if the measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic are associated with individual restrictions, the primary goal was to prevent or delay the spread of the virus as best as possible. Slowing the spread relieves the health system and gives science more time to develop better ways to treat and prevent COVID-19.

Even if healthy people also survive infection with the coronavirus in many cases without consequences, there is always the risk of infecting people with weak health, for whom the disease can be fatal. For this reason, compliance with protective measures is also a question of solidarity.

Nevertheless, the far-reaching protective measures are also subject to criticism. On the one hand, the effectiveness of some measures imposed was not retrospectively confirmed by experts. On the other hand, some measures were considered exaggerated by some people from the outset, given the actual extent of the deaths recorded so far. A comparison is often made with the annual flu season. Read here whether the flu and COVID-19 are comparable and the differences.

Scientists point out that the relatively low number of deaths in Germany in the first wave (compared to other countries without appropriate protective measures) is only due to the effectiveness of the early comprehensive measures. So, while individuals may see little or no benefit from the preventative measures, they are considered highly effective for the community. The term prevention paradox has been used in research on this phenomenon since the 1980s.

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