A novel observation has led researchers to allow the possibility that the Novel Coronavirus may become a new seasonal illness like the flu and other respiratory infections. This is because of the medical trends observed in the Southern Hemisphere, where COVID-19 has been on the rise as countries like Australia are nearing cold weather. In the Southern Hemisphere, winter typically begins at around the end of June, and the temperatures have already started to drop.
If this is indeed the case, we should also start observing a decline in new Coronavirus cases towards the end of spring. Unfortunately, this also means that the virus may return to the Northern Hemisphere once again next winter. What does this mean for the people and the healthcare system in the short and long term? We discuss this in detail below.
How Could the Coronavirus Become Seasonal?
More and more independent researchers are considering that the virus causing COVID-19 may ultimately become seasonal. Dr. William Schaffner, an expert in infectious diseases, revealed the following in a statement to Healthline, “We think this coronavirus will likely become more prominent during winter in the Southern Hemisphere… and cycle back to the Northern Hemisphere in the next winter season. We’ll be dealing then with influenza, other respiratory viruses, and the coronavirus.”
The question is: Is this even possible? Could a new virus just show up and become a new seasonal burden we have to fight? The answer is, tragically, ‘yes’, and historians believe this has happened before with a more familiar virus - influenza. The first recordings of the flu date back to 1580.
Compared to other infectious diseases like syphilis, tuberculosis, and malaria, which have all been found in Ancient Egyptian mummies and date back millennia, the four centuries influenza has been around are nothing. The first cases of the influenza virus have been recorded in Asia, and the outbreak spread all across Europe, North Africa, and even the Americas at this time. Although we don’t know the exact number of casualties, this first influenza virus reportedly killed 8,000 people in Rome alone.
As the virus spread, it became a seasonal recurrence and a bane that we still have to fight every winter, with the virus constantly evolving. Some years, it is mild, and in others, it’s particularly devastating, like it was with the Spanish Flu in 1918 or the H1N1 outbreak of 2009. Thus, it is certainly possible that the Novel Coronavirus may become the new, worse version of the flu existing alongside it.
If the Coronavirus Becomes Seasonal, What Shall We Do?
Should the Novel Coronavirus turn into a new seasonal infection, we all have to be prepared this time. One of the first and foremost goals of the healthcare systems in the Northern Hemisphere is the development of a vaccine and other treatments for the virus, both of which are already in development in several labs across the globe. Ideally, we would have a vaccine for the next seasonal outbreak, which would be capable of reducing the severity and spread of SARS-CoV-2.
This will only work, though, if the virus doesn’t start mutating rapidly, and the strains prominent the next season will not be too different. Mutation is one of the major concerns right now, as the Novel Coronavirus is an RNA virus, which means that it doesn’t have DNA, and is, hence, less stable and could mutate more quickly much like the flu - another RNA virus. The good news is that, so far, researchers haven’t observed particularly rapid mutations of the virus, with 800 different strains of SARS-CoV-2 being sequenced across the globe.
One positive aspect of the possible seasonality of the virus is that many countries would then have time to recuperate and recover from the virus during the warm months. If that is the case, the number of new cases should start dropping in the Northern Hemisphere shortly. Unfortunately, researchers aren’t sure how long this break will last.
What About the Southern Hemisphere?
Researchers say that the Southern Hemisphere should prepare for the worst as it gets closer to winter. Luckily, since these countries will be affected much later than Asia, Europe, and North America, they will have a lot more information about the virus and ways to contain it than those in the Northern Hemisphere. Taking advantage of this abundance of information available both for medical professionals, governmental structures and the public is key.
In Australia, we are already observing a tightening of mass gathering laws and a countrywide stay home order, though people are still allowed to go to work. No public gatherings of more than two people are allowed since the end of March, which seems to have curbed the number of new cases compared to a rapid increase that was observed in mid and late March already (see chart below).
According to Worldometer, there are currently 5,895 recorded Coronavirus cases in Australia, of which there are 46 fatalities (approximately 2% of patients).
If you live in the Southern Hemisphere, you should start engaging in practices that are known to work, such as social distancing. It's also crucial to abide by personal hygiene and cleaning rules, such as the disinfection of surfaces in your home, vehicle, smartphone, and hand washing.
Another important thing you can do is get your flu shot early this year, since reducing your chance of getting the flu, or getting both the flu and COVID-19, is crucial for your health and the workload of medical facilities in your area.
Time will tell whether or not the predictions are true and SARS-Cov-2 will indeed become a new seasonal respiratory infection, but meanwhile, we would like to urge you to exercise caution and abide by local medical regulations regarding the virus, no matter where you live.