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Sign Of The Times: Germany's Top Podcast Deals With Coronavirus

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Germany is home to one of the world's leading experts on coronaviruses. In 2003, he and a colleague discovered SARS, after China hid information about it. And then in January of this year, he was the first scientist outside of China to develop a test for COVID-19. And now he has found fame as a podcaster. Here's NPR's Rob Schmitz.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: During the first weeks of the coronavirus epidemic in China, Christian Drosten was busy. He and his team at the virology institute at Berlin's Cherite Hospital were working overtime to develop a test for the virus while German media kept pestering him for interviews.

CHRISTIAN DROSTEN: And I was often on television. And the way your statements are abbreviated there and how sometimes, also, your message is completely diluted frustrated me.

SCHMITZ: It also frustrated Norbert Grundei, who works at public broadcaster Northern German Radio, or NDR. Grundei felt the public was not getting the information it needed about this new virus and the nature of its threat to humanity. He thought to himself, the world's top expert on COVID-19 lives here in my backyard; why not do a daily podcast where people could ask him questions? But he wasn't sure if Professor Drosten, who was juggling coronavirus research and advising European leaders, would have time to respond. But Grundei emailed him anyway.

NORBERT GRUNDEI: And only a few hours later, I got an answer in which he said, well, I'm on the road right now. I think it's a good idea. We can start on Monday.

SCHMITZ: The time it took from idea to execution - three days.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DAS CORONAVIRUS UPDATE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken). "Das Coronavirus Update."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: After just two daily episodes, "Das Coronavirus Update" shot to No. 1 on Apple Podcasts in Germany, where it's remained ever since.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DAS CORONAVIRUS UPDATE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

DROSTEN: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: "Good day, Professor Drosten. Have you been working through the night?" asks a host. Drosten replies, "I try to sleep as much as I can. I don't always succeed." The podcast is divided into two parts - a science journalist interviews Drosten and then poses questions from the audience. Drosten is at the forefront of coronavirus research, but he also likes to hypothesize and question what we think we know.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DAS CORONAVIRUS UPDATE")

DROSTEN: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: In Episode 15, Drosten says, latest research suggests when the virus starts in the throat, there's time to build up immunity before it progresses to the lungs.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DAS CORONAVIRUS UPDATE")

DROSTEN: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: He stresses, this is a hypothesis, but it could be why a number of young and fit patients are in critical condition. It's possible when the initial virus skips the throat and starts in the lungs, there's no time for immunity to build up before damage is done.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DAS CORONAVIRUS UPDATE")

DROSTEN: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: Podcast director Grundei says the podcast analytics show most people listen to the entire 30 minutes. He says listeners hang on to every word of a man who is also advising Chancellor Angela Merkel.

GRUNDEI: The idea that all people in Germany have the same consultant as the political leaders have in Germany, I think this is really a good idea.

SCHMITZ: Drosten thinks so, too. He says the longer format of a podcast is far better to communicate the science behind this virus.

DROSTEN: The way you can be differential and you can say a little bit more and things are not cut out, and I think this is what makes it authentic. And I couldn't do that on any other topic; I can only do that on this very topic that I work on.

SCHMITZ: And that has made Drosten a celebrity in Germany.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DAS CORONAVIRUS UPDATE")

DROSTEN: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: In Episode 19, he says he's unsettled by this, and he worries his words are being taken out of context. That's also why "Das Coronavirus Update" hasn't been translated into English yet. The World Health Organization has urged podcast director Grundei to translate it quickly so the rest of the world can benefit from it, but Professor Drosten insists that it would have to be done by a fellow scientist so the rest of the world can have the most accurate information of a virus that threatens us all.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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