Italy’s Coronavirus Crisis Started At German Car Parts Firm Webasto, Once Touted As Success Story, Report Says

Researchers have traced the devastating outbreak of coronavirus in Italy to a single German auto parts supplier, a report on Sunday says.

Streets of Milan stand almost deserted.
Vittorio Zunino Celotto / Getty Images

Researchers have traced the devastating outbreak of coronavirus in Italy to a single German auto parts supplier, a report on Sunday says.

The global coronavirus outbreak has hit Italy harder than any other European country, or any country in the world other than China, where the virus is believed to have originated. As of Sunday, Italian authorities reported more than 7,300 confirmed cases of the highly contagious virus, with 366 fatalities. That death toll rose by 133 since Saturday, according to a NPR report. Now, scientists in Italy say they know exactly where the Italian outbreak began: in Germany.

The findings by virologists at Luigi Sacco University Hospital in Milan, Italy, the heart of the country’s hardest-hit region, also overturn what has been considered one of the most important success stories in containing the spread of coronavirus, according to a Washington Post report.

In January, an outbreak at the auto-parts manufacturing company Webasto infected 16 people. The company quickly shut down its $44 million headquarters located about a half-hour outside of Munich, began an employee testing program, and quarantined individuals believed to have come in contact with the virus. The outbreak appeared to be quickly contained and the company soon reopened.

According to the virologists’ findings, the Webasto outbreak was not as well-contained as it immediately appeared. They say that a person infected at Webasto then traveled to Italy’s northern Lombardy region, home to Milan, the country’s financial capital, spreading the coronavirus there, according to the Washington Post report.

Allianz Stadium stands empty of fans on Sunday.
A major Italian soccer match between Juventus and Inter Milan was played behind closed doors on Sunday. Valerio Pennicino / Getty Images

Employees at Webasto headquarters were infected with the virus when a woman who worked at a factory the company had recently opened in Shanghai, China, visited the German facility on January 20, according to a Bloomberg News report.

At the time of her visit, the Chinese employee showed no symptoms, but after taking a series of meetings at the Stockdorf, Germany, headquarters, she awoke from her sleep later that evening feeling “slightly warm.” The following day, she experienced “minor pain and fatigue,” according to researchers cited by Bloomberg News. She attributed the symptoms to “jet lag” at the time.

The employee did not realize that she was ill with COVID-19, the illness caused by coronavirus, until January 23, after her arrival back in China. Just a few days later, employees at the German facility began falling ill with the virus.

Despite the quick actions taken by the company to contain the outbreak, the virus “probably spread more than recognized,” according to infectious disease specialist Massimo Galli, one of the researchers who conducted the study reported by The Washington Post.

The genetic compositions of the German virus and the Italian strain are so similar that “it’s very probable that at least a large part of the epidemic happening in Italy” came from the Webasto outbreak, Galli said.

Italy has placed most its northern regions on lockdown, effectively quarantining about 16 million people, in an effort to contain the rampaging coronavirus outbreak. A major soccer match between two of the country’s top teams, Juventus and Inter Milan, was played on Sunday with no fans allowed in the stadium.