As health authorities work to gather information about the new coronavirus and the illness it causes, one of the questions they are trying to answer is how long the current outbreak will last.
The disease caused by the virus has been formally named COVID-19. It was first detected in China in December. In the months since it has infected more than 44,000 people globally and has killed more than 1,100.
While the scramble to stop the spread of the disease continues, some health officials have begun to share predictions on when the spread of the virus could slow.
In an interview with Reuters on Tuesday, epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan, who garnered celebrity for combating the SARS epidemic in 2003, said the peak of the virus should come in mid to late February, followed by a plateau or decrease.
Zhong said he based his forecast on mathematical modelling, recent events and government action.
“I hope this outbreak or this event may be over in something like April,” he told Reuters.
On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump shared the same prediction, claiming without evidence that the outbreak could end by April.
“You know a lot of people think that goes away in April with the heat, as the heat comes in,” he said. “Typically that will go away in April. We’re in great shape, though.”
Is the novel coronavirus a seasonal virus? Could the outbreak end in April?
Here’s what experts say:
What is a seasonal virus, and are coronaviruses seasonal?
Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases faculty member at the University of Toronto, said a “classic example” of a seasonal virus is influenza.
“Influenza, we know in Canada, has a seasonal component to it,” he said. “Every winter, we’re going to see a lot of influenza, and it comes about around November, December, [and] usually goes away or starts to peter out at the end of February.”
But Bogoch said that in the tropics, influenza doesn’t have as much seasonality.
“In fact, you will see some degree of transmission all year round,” he explained.
When it comes to coronaviruses, Bogoch said some, but not all, have shown seasonality in the past.
“Some of the coronaviruses are more prone to transmission in cooler climates, and they’re just less likely to be transmitted during warmer months,” he said. “So there can be a seasonal component to some of the existing known coronaviruses that circulate, but it’s not entirely clear if those same rules will apply to this coronavirus.”
In an email to Global News, Dr. Jason Kindrachuk, an assistant professor and Canada Research Chair in emerging viruses at the University of Manitoba, said four of the seven known coronaviruses cause “mild cold-like illnesses” but that they are “not truly seasonal viruses.”
Is the virus that causes COVID-19 a seasonal virus?
Bogoch said we don’t know enough about the “different characteristics” that contribute to this coronavirus’ transmission to “confidently predict” what’s going to happen.
If China is unable to contain the virus, Bogoch said there are two scenarios that could happen.
One possibility is that the novel coronavirus could integrate itself into one of the many other viruses that cause “coughs and colds,” becoming a “regularly circulating virus,” Bogoch said.
“Another possibility is that it has some seasonal components and it circulates analogous to the influenza virus,” he explained. “And there might be seasonal variation in the number of cases, and just like we have influenza season, we might see more of this novel coronavirus as well during those times.”
Overall, though, Bogoch said it’s “too early to know” if this virus will be seasonal or when the COVID-19 outbreak could end.
“I think the key thing to remember is these are all predictions and this is all from people extrapolating from other coronaviruses, and, you know, they’re not all created the same,” he said. “So it’s fine to make predictions, but I think we just have to also appreciate that there’s still a lot of uncertainty in these predictions.”
Kindrachuk, too, said it is “too early yet” to make any predictions based on the epidemiological data and case reports that have been presented.
“While there seems to be some discussion on peaking of COVID-19 cases, the alert levels are still high in regards to the virus and current case numbers,” he said. “There is still a massive concern regarding the potential for outbreaks of the virus in low- and middle-income countries, which would be difficult to contain given the economic and health-care limitations in many of those regions.”
He said he is “hesitant to put a lot of weight into these models that predict specific outcomes” as there are “often many additional variables that can impact the rates of disease transmission.”
At a press conference on Tuesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) also painted a less optimistic picture of the COVID-19 outbreak.
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the epidemic was “very much an emergency” for China but also “one that holds a very grave threat for the rest of the world.”
He said there was still a window of opportunity to shut down the outbreak.
Tedros said the virus should be regarded as akin to a terrorist attack.
“To be honest, a virus is more powerful (in) creating political, social and economic upheaval than any attack,” he said.
— With files from Reuters and the Associated Press
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