Health experts are concerned about the potential for a new wave of Covid-19 infections over the winter period, identifying several factors that could lead to an increase in the rate of transmission.
It comes amid heightened fears that coronavirus cases will surge in the Northern Hemisphere when the seasons change, since respiratory illnesses tend to thrive during cooler weather conditions.
That’s partly because people tend to spend more time indoors clustered together in winter, with less ventilation and less personal space than in summer.
Respiratory infections, such as coronaviruses, are typically spread by droplets that are released when a person coughs or sneezes.
And, health experts say colder and drier conditions in winter strongly affects the transmission of flu-like illnesses.
“It is not an unreasonable hypothesis to think that it will get worse in the winter,” Dr. Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, told CNBC via telephone.
“It is not a ridiculous notion to float, there just isn’t any evidence for it. We can’t have any evidence of seasonality because we have known about it for less than a year. We haven’t been through one cycle yet,” he added.
Preparations for the upcoming winter season come as countries try to orchestrate a delicate balancing act: reopening their economies while also achieving public health goals.
The World Health Organization has said it “fully supports” efforts to reopen societies, adding it wishes to see children returning to school and people returning to work.
But, if countries are serious about reopening their economies and societies, the WHO insisted they must also be serious about suppressing the transmission of the virus and saving lives. “Opening up without having control is a recipe for disaster,” the United Nations health agency has warned.
To date, more than 25.7 million people have contracted Covid-19 worldwide, with 857,413 related deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
Clarke said “much stricter messaging” from lawmakers across the globe would be required to ensure people remain vigilant to the risk of inadvertently spreading a virus, even if it was not Covid-19.
“People in schools, workplaces often turn up to work with coughs and colds and spread them around to people … They can’t do that this year because how do you know it is not something more serious?” he said.
“The simple answer is you don’t.”
‘Winter is coming’
Europe has recorded a sharp rise in the number of new Covid-19 infections in recent weeks.
The number of new coronavirus cases reported across the region increased by 5.6% to a total of just over 4 million cases in the week ending August 23, according to data compiled by the WHO.
Those new cases marked a 6% jump compared to the previous week and an increase of 72% compared to the week ending June 7, when the lowest number of cases per week were reported since the April peak.
“Winter is coming,” Catherine Smallwood, senior emergency officer at WHO Europe, said during an online press briefing last month, reflecting on the “worrying trend” of increased infections across the region.
“People are traveling more, they are going back to work, schools are reopening — these are all factors that are going to increase the risk of community transmission and further transmission,” Smallwood said.
“As we approach the flu season and the winter months, there are additional factors that will conflate and add even more to that level of risk,” she continued, citing the increased likelihood that people would congregate indoors and in more crowded settings.
“We are very concerned that countries prepare adequately for that and we are very, very engaged in that at the moment,” Smallwood concluded.
The end of the pandemic ‘depends on us’
“The virus has not gone away,” Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, said during the same media briefing.
“Having said that, we are not in February where at that time almost everyone was caught off guard and that the default option was to shut down the societies and then to reboot. In that sense, we know now how to target the virus,” he added.
Kluge said the WHO, in addition to Gavi, the global vaccine alliance, were “relentlessly accelerating” the manufacturing and development of a Covid-19 vaccine.
He conceded, however, that the successful production and rollout of a safe and effective vaccine would not mark the end of the pandemic.
“The end of the pandemic will be the day when every one of us will take responsibility and (learn) how to behave with the virus. That depends on us — That day can even be tomorrow,” Kluge said.