- Dr. Anthony Fauci said Wednesday that he believes that coronavirus ‘very well might’ be seasonal.
- Health experts have been divided over whether the virus moves in a seasonable pattern or if it will continue to spread at a consistent pace until a vaccine is developed.
- A seasonal pattern would be good news for the short-term future, epidemiologists say. But it would provide only temporary relief until coronavirus came roaring back when temperatures fall.
Dr. Anthony Fauci on Wednesday provided the strongest endorsement so far of the theory that coronavirus is likely to follow a seasonal pattern.
“I think it very well might [be seasonal],” Fauci said at a daily White House press briefing.
The infectious disease expert said that he’s started seeing cases of coronavirus pop up in the Southern hemisphere, in Africa and in other countries, as they move towards their winter season.
A seasonal pattern for coronavirus could provide much-needed relief to economies around the globe. In the U.S., economic activity has slowed to a crawl as part of a strategy to slow down the spread of the virus, which originated in China in November.
But while a seasonal movement might provide some breathing room, it by no means puts the country in the clear since the virus would be expected to come roaring back in the fall and winter, health experts say.
“It’s good news in the sense that it gives the country a break,” Dr. Peter Hotez, the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, told the Daily Caller News Foundation on the possibility of a seasonal pattern.
“If we have to live like this the rest of the year you can imagine what that’s going to do to the economy,” he continued. “If it gets people back into the workplace even for a period of time until we see it start to go up again that would obviously be a benefit.”
Hotez cautioned that the jury is still out on whether the virus indeed is seasonal.
“There are some hints that there are going to be climate effects and it will go down, but I don’t know how much you can rely on that,” he said.
Fauci did not identify what research he has seen that points him towards a seasonal pattern for coronavirus. But several preliminary studies published this month showed that the rate of transmission for coronavirus is slower in areas with higher temperatures and higher humidity levels.
A study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that 90% of the transmissions of coronavirus has occurred in areas with average temperatures between 3 and 17 degrees Celsius, or 37 and 63 degrees Fahrenheit.
The paper noted relatively fewer cases in warm states like Texas and Arizona compared to New York and Washington. There are outliers to the theory. Southern cities like New Orleans have seen a spike in coronavirus cases, but health experts are not sure if an anomaly — such as Mardis Gras, which took place in February — may account for the high case load.
Studies from the University of Maryland and Ausvet, an Australia-based global health consultancy, found that coronavirus has spread more efficiently between the 30th and 50th parallels, an area that includes nearly all of the continental U.S., compared to southern locales.
It is possible that coronavirus could move in a more muted seasonal pattern, meaning that it will dissipate only slightly in the summer.
Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health, said that there is reason to believe that the novel coronavirus may “transmit somewhat more efficiently in winter than summer” like other coronaviruses, but “size of the change is expected to be modest.”
“Changing seasons and school vacation may help, but are unlikely to stop transmission.”
Scientists have been unsure whether the new strain would follow the same pattern and have noted that SARS and MERS, which created pandemics in 2003 and 2013, respectively, did not follow seasonal patterns.
Hotez said that the novelty of coronavirus makes it difficult to predict which pattern it will follow.
“We usually see seasonality after a virus establishes a pattern over a period of years. Right now, with the whole population never having seen this virus before, it could continue to take off for a while,” Hotez said.
“We need to be prepared for another cycle.”
Fauci says that the coronavirus “very well might” become a seasonal cycle because countries in the Southern hemisphere are seeing new cases as their winter season begins pic.twitter.com/YQdjrAAAe3
— QuickTake by Bloomberg (@QuickTake) March 25, 2020
Another uncertainty is whether the number of coronavirus cases during a seasonal lull will be higher or lower than they are currently. As of Thursday, 80,000 Americans have tested positive for coronavirus. The number of people actually infected with the virus is believed to be far higher, but undetected because of limited testing.
Hotez said that cases would be expected to fall below their current levels if seasonality occurs. The virus will not completely disappear, “but you definitely see a big reduction,” he said.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the chief medical analyst for CNN, said Thursday that a seasonal pattern leading to decreased speed of transmission is “potentially short-term good news.”
But he cautioned: “This also means it will come back as the weather starts to cool again, so let’s make sure we can be even more prepared, take advantage of this warmer weather time.”
“Also recognize that it’s not over just because the numbers start to decrease.”
Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus task force coordinator, said Wednesday that the Trump administration is preparing for future cycles of the virus.
Birx said that planning is for a resurgence of coronavirus in Fall 2020 and Spring 2021.
Fauci said that the coroanvirus task force is working aggressively to get potential vaccines and anti-viral drugs through clinical trials.
“Because I know we’ll be successful in putting this down now, but we really need to be prepared for another cycle,” Fauci said Wednesday. “And what we’re doing, I believe, will prepare us well.”
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