New study suggests COVID-19 may become seasonal; countries must continue physical distancing until 2022
A recent study by Harvard scientists has suggested that a one-time practice of physical distancing will not be enough to counter this global pandemic.
With over 2.1 million people infected and the continuously rising death toll now standing at nearly 1.4 lakh globally, the COVID-19 infection, caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has shown no signs of letting up in the four months since it was first discovered in Wuhan, China. Countries around the world have been rattled by this life-threatening respiratory infection that has overwhelmed even the best healthcare systems tackling it.
Physical distancing to beat COVID-19
A recent study by Harvard scientists led by Stephen Kessler has suggested that a one-time practice of physical distancing (the World Health Organisation updated the terminology from social distancing last month) will not be enough to counter this global pandemic.
It goes on to add that while the approaching summer season in the northern hemisphere may see a drop in the number of cases and the spread of the disease, the following autumn and winter months could see another resurgence of this deadly infection. This suggests that the disease may not be an aberration, intensified through a global outbreak, but could become seasonal like the common flu, presenting a grim picture of the overall situation.
“Using a mathematical model, we assessed that one-time interventions will be insufficient to maintain COVID-19 prevalence within the critical care capacity of the United States,” says an abstract from the study. “Seasonal variation in transmission will facilitate epidemic control during the summer months but could lead to an intense resurgence in the autumn.”
Taking the United States of America as an example, which has been one of the worst-hit countries so far with nearly 34,000 deaths, Kessler and his team have argued that while the practice of physical or social distancing is key in limiting the intensity and spread of the disease, how long it is going to be practised is still debatable. “The amount of social distancing needed to curb the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic in the context of seasonally varying transmission remains unclear,” says the study titled 'Social distancing strategies for curbing the COVID-19 epidemic'.
Leading global health organisations like WHO have recommended countries and their inhabitants to be vigilant while the scientific community is engaged in a frantic race to develop a vaccine that can treat this infection. Until then, many countries have, quite literally, shut shop; international and state borders have been sealed, places of public gatherings closed down and citizens asked to remain indoors as governments ramp up testing.
Lockdowns until 2022
The study further states that physical distancing measures could be necessary for a prolonged period. Countries like India, which had announced a national lockdown of three weeks beginning March 25, have already extended it to May 3, but going by the predictions of the study, countries may well be looking at introducing more such lockdowns every now and then. “Intermittent distancing measures can maintain control of the epidemic, but without other interventions, these measures may be necessary into 2022,” the study adds.
The development of a vaccine is underway, but the entire process of development and finally getting it to be mass distributed will take a while, and enforcing strict measures and restrictions on the movement of citizens has been the go-to step for governments the world over.
Countries in Europe such as Italy, Spain, France and the United Kingdom have suffered heavy casualties as a result of the COVID-19 infection.
Different research groups from the USA, China and Australia studied the effects of temperature and humidity on the SARS-CoV-2 virus and suggested that the number of new cases may see a drop in the summer, but will make a return in the following autumn.
The same researchers from Harvard in an earlier study had also pointed out that annual or sporadic outbreaks of the COVID-19 infection could be experienced “every few years”. The researchers say that much like the flu, which is seasonal and also caused by coronaviruses, COVID-19 can end up becoming a seasonal epidemic too.
While there were arguments against this theory, especially by citing the example of the SARS outbreak of 2003, the researchers said that the outbreak was curtailed and dealt with thanks to robust public health interventions initiated by authorities in mainland China, Hong Kong and other countries in Southeast Asia.
Along with practising physical distancing, citizens have been asked to practice good personal hygiene by wearing masks, clean hands regularly with soap and water or hand sanitizers and avoid big social gatherings.
Even Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the United States, had earlier this month said that there was a very good chance of the novel coronavirus becoming a seasonal infection, as it was unlikely to be brought under control anytime soon.
For more information, read our article on How to tell the difference between COVID-19 symptoms and the flu.
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