• Experts anticipate some seasonal impact on the spread of the coronavirus, though the exact relationship is unclear.
  • Some parts of the Southern Hemisphere have seen wintertime increases in confirmed cases.
  • Concerns have been raised about what the Northern Hemisphere can expect once winter arrives there.

Last month, the results of a COVID-19 study in New South Wales, Australia suggested the disease spreads faster in periods of lower humidity during winter. Several weeks later, after a fresh outbreak in neighbouring Victoria that followed the Southern Hemisphere’s change in seasons, authorities decided to close the border between the two states for the first time since the Spanish flu pandemic a century earlier.

The scientific community has yet to determine the exact relationship between seasonal change and the spread of COVID-19 in different parts of the world. The executive director of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Program said last month it was unclear how the arrival of winter in the Southern Hemisphere would affect the situation there. Still, some experts say it’s reasonable to expect at least some seasonal fluctuation. So, even as Australia’s response to the pandemic has largely been deemed a success, challenges were anticipated as winter loomed.

What we do know for certain about the coronavirus at this point can seem relatively limited: it’s constantly mutating, appears to be increasingly infectious, and may cause a painful swelling dubbed “COVID toe,” for example. Yet our level of understanding increases daily. According to the search engine PubMed, more than 19,000 academic papers mentioning “coronavirus” have already been published so far in 2020, compared to 750 in all of last year. The precise impact of changing seasons is just another knowledge area to be filled in.

That hasn’t stopped speculation about what lies ahead for Northern Hemisphere when winter arrives there – particularly in places like the US, which have still largely failed to stem the initial spread of the pandemic.

Image: World Economic Forum

Another Southern Hemisphere data point can be found in South Africa. Earlier this month, that country reported its highest daily total of confirmed COVID-19 cases to date, about two weeks after the winter solstice.

Experts have warned winter conditions could hurt South Africa’s efforts to curb the coronavirus not least because more people may stay indoors in places heated by wood and coal stoves, which emit particulate matter that can further the spread.

Image: World Economic Forum

It has been widely noted that the Spanish flu pandemic surged during the colder months of 1918 and 1919, which some have seen as an indication of what’s in store with COVID-19. It is also yet another reason experts say comprehensive testing and contact tracing will be essential until a vaccine can be developed.

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum’s Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • A major second wave for the coronavirus during the Northern Hemisphere’s autumn or winter would reflect the behaviour of both the Spanish flu and the 2009 “swine flu,” according to this analysis – though it may actually be negated by the seasonal spread of other viruses. (The Conversation)
  • What if the coronavirus becomes as seasonal as the viruses that cause the common cold? Researchers at Harvard published a study exploring that possibility, and found that social-distancing measures would become necessary until 2022, according to this report. (Wired)
  • Victoria’s COVID-19 spike shows it will be some time yet before Australia can reopen its borders to the world, but according to this analysis there’s no reason why it shouldn’t start selectively opening up to those places in which it has a special interest and where the spread has slowed. (University of Adelaide)
  • A professor of behavioural economics argues that the enormous volume of COVID-19 research now being done, sometimes with an expedited peer review process, means more caution is needed when it comes to disseminating findings. (LSE)
  • One more reason gathering indoors during cold months could be problematic: a group of scientists recently told the WHO it’s underestimating airborne transmission of the coronavirus particularly indoors, where small droplets may linger in the air even after an infected person has left, according to this report. (MIT Technology Review)
  • Far more than weather factors into our ability to curb the spread. In the middle of summer, a handful of states in the US are backtracking on reopening their economies due to a surge in cases after people became “a little bit cavalier and careless,” according to this report. (Christian Science Monitor)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find visualizations and feeds of expert analysis related to COVID-19, Australia and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

Image: World Economic Forum