Scientists in Germany have said children with the coronavirus may be as infectious as adults, and urged caution as schools and playgrounds across Europe start to reopen.
Researchers who analysed data on infected people found that the viral loads in children differed little from those in adults. Opening schools on the assumption that children are less likely to spread the virus was therefore ill-advised, said Christian Drosten, a virologist and Germany’s leading coronavirus expert, who led the team.
“In the current situation, we must warn against the unlimited reopening of schools and kindergartens,” he added.
Drosten’s study, which was released this week, examined the viral loads in the throats of 3,721 people, including more than 100 children, who tested positive for coronavirus in Berlin between January and April.
He said he had been able to carry out his analysis once the number of tests carried out by Labor Berlin, the largest laboratory of its kind in Europe, had reached the critical mass of 60,000 earlier this week. That gave him and his team, including Terry Jones, a mathematician from the Centre for Pathogen Evolution at the University of Cambridge, enough data to be able to carry out an analysis of children who have had the virus.
Data on children during the coronavirus epidemic has been scant due to the lack of tests that have been carried out on them, often because they show few or no symptoms.
“The end result is as clear as glass,” Drosten said on his daily podcast on coronavirus with the broadcaster NDR. “Children do not have significantly different concentrations of the virus in their respiratory passages compared to adults.”
Dorsten said he believed that children were as likely to spread the virus as adults, especially given their social behaviours, including an inability to practice physical distancing, and increased mobility and tendency to sing and cry.
His warning followed the clear assessment by Lothar Wieler, the head of Germany’s leading disease control body, the Robert Koch Institute, that children play just as important a role in spreading the disease as adults. “They can be infected, they can excrete the virus, and they can infect others,” Wieler said in a press briefing on Thursday.
Countries across Europe are preparing to reopen schools in the coming weeks. In Switzerland grandparents are now allowed to hug grandchildren under 10 years of age, following a ruling by the health ministry’s head of infectious diseases.
In Germany, playgrounds began reopening on Friday and pupils aged 11 and 12 are due to return to school in a staggered system starting next week. Classes will be split in two and the groups will alternate between lessons at school and at home.
Hygiene measures will include strict hand washing and disinfection regimes, physical distancing and the demarcation of playgrounds into zones to ensure pupils do not mix more than necessary. Sport and music lessons have been temporarily cut from the curriculum as they are considered too great a risk.
Older pupils already returned to sit exams last month. Nurseries will remain closed for all children, except the offspring of key workers, for the time being.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron has gone against the advice of the government’s scientific committee, by announcing that creches, primary and nursery schools will reopen “progressively” from 11 May.
Lower secondary schools will return the following week, but possibly only in areas of the country where the virus is not widely circulating. As well as a strict hand-washing regime, all ball games and contact sports will be banned and objects touched by more than one pupil must be disinfected. Classes will also be staggered and made up of a maximum of 15 pupils.
The draft health protocol detailing the regulations, which has been seen by some media and is expected to be confirmed by the French education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, later on Friday, has been declared unworkable by many teachers, especially for classes of younger children.
Céline Prier-Cheron, a trade union representative and teacher at a primary school in the Eure-et-Loir, called the guidelines impossible.
“How do you explain to children in nursery schools that they have to raise their hand to take an object, get up, go talk to a friend while respecting the barrier and distancing rules? This health protocol cannot be applied as it is, especially in nursery schools,” she told French TV.
She added: “Teaching is based on the handling of objects, especially in nursery. If we have to disinfect objects each time a child has handled them, it’ll be impossible.”
The parents’ federation, the FCPE, tweeted that parents were reluctant to send children back to school. “That is what our members are telling us, but they are obviously also under constraints from their employers,” it wrote. “But there are still too many uncertainties.”
In both Germany and France, staff will have to wear masks, as well as most children above the age of six. Health experts have recommended that classrooms are frequently aired and that doors are left open so that handles are touched as little as possible.