Scientists have urged members of the public not to let their guard down against the deadly new coronavirus, after President Donald Trump claimed it could die off by the spring due to the heat.
Speaking at the White House on Monday, Trump said he had spoken with Chinese President Xi Jinping about the virus known as 2019-nCoV, which has killed over 1,000 people since it emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, Hubei province, late last year.
2019n-CoV has spread to over 25 countries and territories, as show in the infographic by Statista below. So far, China has been the hardest hit by the bug, with all but two deaths occurring in mainland China and mostly in Hubei.
The country’s officials have responded by putting several cities, including Wuhan, on lockdown, while the U.S. has imposed travel restrictions.
Recalling the conversation, Trump said Xi: “feels very confident, and he feels that…by April or during the month of April, the heat, generally speaking, kills this kind of virus. So that would be a good thing.”
However, in interviews with Newsweek scientists said too little is known about the characteristics of the new member of the coronavirus family of pathogens, and expressed concerns that his words may make the public complacent when it comes to protecting themselves.
Asked if there is any evidence that the virus might be killed off by April because of the warmer weather, Professor Paul Digard, chair of virology at the University of Edinburgh, U.K., told Newsweek there isn’t enough to predict with certainty how it behaves in different seasons.
“What evidence there is comes by analogy with other viruses—some other coronaviruses and more distantly related respiratory viruses such as influenza, which do tend to transmit better in the winter months.
“It’s certainly possible that spring in the northern hemisphere will decrease transmission, but this isn’t guaranteed as we don’t yet know enough about the new virus to be sure,” he said.
Dr. Ravinder Kanda, senior lecturer in evolutionary genomics at Oxford Brookes University, U,.K., told Newsweek: “Little is known about the seasonal dynamics of this particular virus—we cannot take it for granted that the warmer weather will simply drive the virus out of existence.”
Kanda warned: “We need to be cautious. Current measures to try and halt the spread of the virus (including travel bans and quarantine periods) may still prove effective in eradicating this outbreak, but given that we know the virus is highly transmissible, we do need people to remain vigilant in reporting any symptoms, and following good hygiene practices in order to prevent any further spread of the virus.”
Digard echoed Kanda, stating: “I would hope that people will not put enough weight on this prediction to ease off on efforts to control the virus—public health experts certainly won’t, but it’s important that the general public also don’t stop their own precautions. For one, spring is still some way off in the higher latitudes.”
It’s important to remember, according to Digard, that the spring in the northern hemisphere is the start of autumn in the southern hemisphere, which potentially presents “more favorable conditions for [the] virus [to] spread.”
The first wave of the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic happened in the summer, despite influenza A normally being a winter virus, he said.
Kanda explained respiratory viruses are thought to be seasonal for a variety of reasons. “Flu viruses have been observed to be more stable in cold air, and in the colder months, the humidity levels indoors are lower which make it easier for the virus particles to survive—viruses don’t tolerate high heat and humidity very well.
“We also tend to spend more time indoors in the colder months, and have closer contact with each other which also facilitates the spread of respiratory viruses,” she said.
As there is no vaccine against 2019-nCoV, the CDC asks the public to follow the usual steps to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses.
These include regularly washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, particularly after using the bathroom, before eating, and after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose. When sneezing or coughing, cover your mouth with a tissue or your elbow and throw away the tissue immediately. Try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands. Stay at home if you are sick, and if you are well, avoid those who are ill. Objects and surfaces should be cleaned and disinfected frequently using spray or wipes.
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