Dr Visham Bhimull
There have been repeated references in the past about Covid-19 not being able to survive the hot weather of summer in temperate countries or tropical climates.
US President Donald Trump, earlier in the pandemic repeatedly spoke of a reprieve of the Covid-19 pandemic in the US around April when the weather would get warmer.
This was based on our observation of other viruses and their vacillation in activity determined by the changes in the seasons. Thus, this reference of how active a virus is depending on the climate is called seasonality. This is the classic patter observed when we see people getting sick more often from respiratory viruses in the winter of temperate climates.
Most of us are familiar with influenza, more commonly known as seasonal influenza because of its seasonal pattern. The incidence and prevalence increase in winter and decrease in summer.
Coronovirus has always been with us just like influenza and also causes the common cold. It too has shown to follow a seasonal pattern.
Some of the other forms of coronaviruses that are familiar to us have declined in incidence and prevalence due to seasonality and it is based on the that we made the assumption of Covid-19 being also seasonal.
However, Covid-19 is a new virulent and highly contagious strain of coronavirus that has emerged that we have limited information about at the moment.
So, such assumptions may be a shot in the dark if they influence our public health action against the ongoing pandemic.
This pandemic only began at the end of 2019. Data is still imminent as we have only gone through two season changes and analysis of data that associates Covid-19 spread and weather looking at temperature and humidity is still forthcoming.
However, what we do know based on our knowledge about other viruses like influenza does provide some predictions.
Looking at seasons at the same time of year in the northern and southern hemisphere there is a differential.
When it’s winter in the northern hemisphere it’s summer in the southern hemisphere. Thus, we see that influenza peaks during the winter months of December and January in the northern hemisphere and in the winter months of July and August in the southern hemisphere.
This migration over hemispheres can see a prolongation of the lifespan of Covid-19, resulting in an existence of the virus year. This is because the virus is maintained in human populations year-round.
Because of the current lack of information, it is difficult to predict, but as we are in the last four months of 2020 and we would will have come full cycle season wise in both hemispheres since the start of the pandemic, analysis of the data collected could reveal answers to our questions.
There is a good chance that Covid-19 will never go away. Even if a vaccine formulated and deployed, this virus will likely remain for decades continuing to circulate among the world’s population. Like measles, HIV and chicken pox, Covid-19 will ultimately become endemic. This means that the infection is constantly maintained at a baseline level in world populations.
The fact is that there is no foreseeable end to this. Thus, embracing this reality is crucial of the response to this pandemic by the world’s nations. Left alone it will simply keep burning through the world’s population. Most epidemiologists have accepted that the virus is here to stay and public health policy should focus on how do we live with it safely.
Combatting a pandemic like this requires long-range thinking, sustained efforts and international coordination. Thus, stamping out this virus could take decades if we manage that at most. Such efforts take time, money and, most of all, political will.
A vaccination, while crucial to the response, is not likely to eradicate the disease.
Apart from challenges becoming apparent, such as; limited supply, anti-vaccine opposition and logistic roadblocks, even if a vaccine becomes available, an endemic Covid-19 may follow the precedent set by influenza requiring annual vaccination. A future with an enduring Covid-19 would mean that normal no longer exists.
All the efforts of social distancing and the new normal was really to buy us time to think, plan and prepare especially in anticipation of a second and third wave. There needs to be a shift from short-term knee jerk crisis management to long-term solutions. If we continue to exist in a world of lockdown with no foreseeable end, unemployment will continue to soar and there will be devastating blows to our economy.
Many used this as a political argument coming up to our general elections. But looking at our current situation, have we learned our lesson? Reopening our economy, even though we did it very cautiously, we have not developed tools to measure what is working and what is not. A crucial feature of any prolonged scientific experiment.
The struggle to get people to think in the long-term is not new to public health, but few such shortcuts remain at our disposal.
At the rate it is going eventually everyone will come to know someone who got infected or died from the virus.
Maybe that is what it will take to bridge the gap between policy and the populations response so that we are more cohesive in our approach.
The hope is that with this reality before us, as Covid-19 continue raging on, maybe with time it could become a more benign infection causing milder symptoms as our immune systems develop a memory of response to it through previous infection or if a vaccine is made available.
But this will require a considerable amount of time and until then then adapting a new normal is the only way to save lives.
Dr Visham Bhimull MBBS (UWI) Diploma of Family Medicine (UWI) is a Primary Care Physician