Coronavirus continues to spread to countries across the world, with the number of infected people now crossing 90,000, while the death toll is more than 3,313. The deadly novel virus termed COVID-19 has seen cases soaring in countries like China, Italy and Iran. In India, currently there are six people who have tested positive in the states of Kerala, Telangana, New Delhi and Jaipur. Many are concerned that India’s density of population, creaky healthcare facilities, questionable hygiene and large internal migration could cause the crisis to escalate rapidly. However, some experts are trying to stay positive and believe that India’s humid climate and warm temperatures could potentially make the country more resistant to a massive outbreak.
“Viruses thrive in lower temperatures, which is why nCoV has spread fast to south-east Asian countries that are cooler and less humid than India,” Dr KK Agarwal, the former president of the Indian Medical Association (IMA) told The Times of India. “South Korea and Japan have seen rapid transmission while India, despite receiving a patient from China in early February, seems to have averted an outbreak.” While he points out that similar epidemics in the past like the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), yellow fever and Ebola have always had a less severe impact on India, he agrees that the transmission of the virus could also be happening without it being detected.
“Spread of a virus depends on three factors: the agent or the virus itself, the host and the environment,” says medical consultant Arindam Biswas. “While the virus and the host were present in India, nCoV perhaps didn’t get the ideal weather conditions to proliferate.” While Biswas speaks about how being aware about the virus has helped people take preventive measures, he also points out that the nCoV could be advancing undetected under the guise of pneumonia, which is a major health concern in India.
This stance mirrors a recent statement by Donald Trump, who said the epidemic would “miraculously go away” as soon as the weather warms up. Even in Indonesia, where no coronavirus case had been reported until March 3, a senior health ministry official was attributing the country’s climate for its improved immunity. However, while this hot take can be pretty reassuring in a time of panic, it’s too early to have scientific evidence backing it up.
A 2007 study on the effect of environmental conditions on the spread of viral infections found that in high humidity levels, the warm moisture in the air prevents the spread of infected droplets, which is one of the ways the coronavirus infects people. There’s also a snuggle season theory that says since in warm weather people aren’t in close contact, especially indoors, they’re less likely to pass the infection to one another. However, experts remain skeptical and have warned that we don’t know enough about the disease to make such assumptions.
“I think it’s premature to assume that,” Dr. Nancy Messionnier of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told TIME. “We haven’t been through even a single year with this pathogen.” Scientists are still unsure whether other diseases that resemble coronavirus like SARS or MERS are seasonal and whether the novel COVID-19 will show similar behavioural patterns. Meanwhile, Elizabeth McGraw, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Pennsylvania State University, said, “Rate of virus spread, effectiveness of infection control practices, weather and human immunity will likely all play a role in determining its future.” Experts also warn that even if the incidence of the infection were to reduce during the summer months, it could very easily rear its ugly head again once temperatures drop.
“Policymakers and health officials should not rely on warmer temperatures to save us from COVID-19,” said Thomas Bollyky, the director of the Global Health Program at the Washington DC-based Council on Foreign Relations. “The only things that can do that are public health preparedness and level-headed policies to reduce the number of people infected, protect healthcare workers, and improve the diagnosis and treatment of those who do get ill.”
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