12 February 2020
Will the covid-19 outbreak caused by the new coronavirus fade as the northern hemisphere warms up? This has been suggested by some researchers and repeated by some political leaders, including US president Donald Trump, but we simply don’t know if it is the case.
“We absolutely don’t know that,” says Trudie Lang at the University of Oxford. “I keep asking virologist colleagues this and nobody knows.”
“So when you hear people say the weather will warm up and it will just disappear, it’s a very unhelpful generalisation,” she says.
This is essentially what Trump said on 10 February. “The heat, generally speaking, kills this kind of virus,” he told a meeting. “A lot of people think that goes away in April as the heat comes in.”
Trump isn’t the only politician to make this sort of claim. The UK’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, told ITV reporter Tom Clarke last week that the hope was to slow the spread of the virus so it reaches the UK in spring and summer when coronaviruses, of which the new virus is just a specific example, are less transmissible.
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It is thought the virus can survive for up to four days on surfaces. Some researchers, including Paul Hunter at the University of East Anglia, UK, do think the new coronavirus won’t survive for so long in warmer conditions.
“One extreme scenario is that it will burn itself out sometime in the summer,” says Hunter. “The other extreme scenario is that it will reduce in the summer but it will come back again in the winter and become what we call endemic, in that it will spread pretty much everywhere.”
However, if it is less infectious in warmer conditions, there is a greater chance of it spreading in the southern hemisphere as conditions there cool.
David Heymann at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who led the global response to the SARS outbreak in 2003, points out that the MERS coronavirus has spread in Saudi Arabia in August, when it is very hot. “These viruses can certainly spread during high temperature seasons,” he says.
It is thought one reason why flu spreads less readily in summer is that people spend less time together in confined spaces. In particular, it could be linked to school closures, says John Edmunds, also at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
However, children tend to spread flu because they have less immunity to flu strains than adults, who have been exposed to many strains. This isn’t the case for the new coronavirus – fewer cases have been reported in young people, though this may be just because they are less likely to become seriously ill.
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