Coronavirus: is Middle East set for Covid-19 surge in winter?

Scientists are uncertain whether the disease will follow patterns of more established viral infections

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A report highlighting the risk of a surge in Covid-19 deaths in the UK this winter has raised questions over whether the Middle East could experience the same.

A study by the Academy of Medical Sciences said Britain could suffer a second significant peak over January and February next year.

While the report’s authors cautioned this was still only a possibility, research has shown the virus does survive longer in colder conditions.

But owing to Covid-19’s relatively recent emergence, however, scientists remain unsure whether it will follow known patterns of more established viral infections.

“We’re all waiting to see how much of a seasonal component there is,” said Dr Andrew Freedman, a specialist in infectious diseases at Cardiff University in the UK.

We're all waiting to see how much of a seasonal component there is.

“We do know that respiratory viruses spread much more readily in the winter months.

“Influenza tends to be a seasonal thing, but until we’ve a full year’s worth of coronavirus, we can’t really say.”

Flu season in the Northern Hemisphere can begin as early as October, according to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the UAE, flu tends to peak between December and February, with authorities recommending people get vaccinated by October each year.

History has shown that infection rates of viral outbreaks do increase as the weather cools.

During the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, a second emergence in the autumn of that year caused more deaths than the original spring outbreak.

Similarly, a second H1N1 swine flu wave in 2009 proved more substantial than the original outbreak.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , April 29 – 2020 :- Shoppers wearing protective face mask to prevent the spread of the coronavirus at Mall of the Emirates in Dubai. Authorities ease the restriction for the residents in Dubai. At present mall opening timing is 12:00 pm to 10:00 pm. Carrefour timing is 9:00 am to 10:00 pm. (Pawan Singh / The National) For News/Standalone/Online. Story by Patrick
Shoppers wear face masks at Dubai's Mall of the Emirates. Contactless check-out is being expedited across the GCC due to social distancing measures. Pawan Singh / The National

In a document published this month, the World Economic Forum said coronavirus cases had increased in Australia in recent weeks, where it is now winter.

Meanwhile, South Africa, another Southern Hemisphere country, is also currently experiencing a rise in coronavirus infections.

“With respect to the coronavirus, we do not have a confirmed seasonality,” said Dr Bharat Pankhania, a senior consultant on communicable disease control and senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter in the UK.

“However, if we think from first principles, we can work out that the ingredients for an increase in the number of cases in winter are all there.”

Dr Pankhania said patterns witnessed in the UK might not necessarily apply to the Middle East owing to differing human behaviours.

“In the Middle East, as it’s cooler [in winter], people will open up their windows and allow in more cooler air,” he said.

“If that’s the behaviour, the chances of an infection are slightly reduced.”

Studies indicate that coronavirus spreads most easily when temperatures average between 5°C and 11°C, and that infections fall as temperatures increase.

But some researchers do not believe significant seasonal effects are likely. Writing for an academic website called The Conversation last month, Dr Jeremy Rossman, an honorary senior lecturer in virology at the University of Kent in the UK, said scientists "really don't know to what extent" seasonal factors such as humidity, UV levels and the amount of time people spend indoors – which all impact on influenza transmission – affect the coronavirus.

“Even if seasonal factors affect Covid-19 transmission, the spread of a new virus through a population that has no immunity will overwhelm any influence of seasonal factors,” Dr Rossman wrote.

The UAE has reported more than 55,000 coronavirus cases and 335 deaths, according to government figures.

Fatalities have dropped significantly after peaking in late April and the first half of May. On Wednesday, the UAE recorded no new deaths, the first time this has happened since April 18.