MUNICH (Reuters) - One January lunchtime in a car parts company, a worker turned to a colleague and asked to borrow the salt.
As well as the saltshaker, in that instant, they shared the new coronavirus, scientists have since concluded.
That their exchange was documented at all is the result of intense scrutiny, part of a rare success story in the global fight against the virus.
The co-workers were early links in what was to be the first documented chain of multiple human-to-human transmissions outside Asia of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
They are based in Stockdorf, a German town of 4,000 near Munich in Bavaria, and they work at car parts supplier Webasto Group. The company was thrust under a global microscope after it disclosed that one of its employees, a Chinese woman, caught the virus and brought it to Webasto headquarters. There, it was passed to colleagues - including, scientists would learn, a person lunching in the canteen with whom the Chinese patient had no contact.
The Jan. 22 canteen scene was one of dozens of mundane incidents that scientists have logged in a medical manhunt to trace, test and isolate infected workers so that the regional government of Bavaria could stop the virus from spreading.
That hunt has helped Germany win crucial time to build its COVID-19 defences.
The time Germany bought may have saved lives, scientists say. Its first outbreak of locally transmitted COVID-19 began earlier than Italy’s, but Germany has had many fewer deaths. Italy’s first detected local transmission was on Feb. 21. By then Germany had kicked off a health ministry information campaign and a government strategy to tackle the virus which would hinge on widespread testing. In Germany so far, more than 2,100 people have died of COVID-19. In Italy, with a smaller population, the total exceeds 17,600.