Coronavirus may not diminish in warmer weather, new study finds

This scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (orange) — also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19. ( National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases-Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIH )

The novel coronavirus that has ravaged the globe and brought the world's economy to a standstill may not diminish significantly in warmer weather, according to a report from a panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences.

The findings, from a report presented to the White House on Tuesday, are an attempt to determine how COVID-19 may or may not behave once temperatures start to warm up in late spring and summer. But there's a lot about the virus that is still not understood by scientists.

"The laboratory data available so far indicate reduced survival of SARS-CoV-2 at elevated temperatures, and variation in temperature sensitivity as a function of the type of surface on which the virus is placed. However, the number of well-controlled studies available at this time on the topic remains small," the report states.

Scientists anticipate being able to review new, more relevant data in the next week or two, including information on surface survival of the virus under different levels of humidity, and aerosol survival with and without exposure to UV radiation.

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The NAS report also states that existing studies of how coronavirus has spread in different climates should be "interpreted with caution" because there are "significant caveats" regarding data quality as well as location and length of the studies.

According to the report: "There is some evidence to suggest that SARS-CoV-2 may transmit less efficiently in environments with higher ambient temperature and humidity; however, given the lack of host immunity globally, this reduction in transmission efficiency may not lead to a significant reduction in disease spread” without mitigation measures, such as social distancing."

The report also looks to the past for potential lessons about how COVID-19 may progress.

"There have been 10 influenza pandemics in the past 250-plus years – two started in the northern hemisphere winter, three in the spring, two in the summer and three in the fall," the report states. "All had a peak second wave approximately six months after emergence of the virus in the human population, regardless of when the initial introduction occurred."

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The findings may also throw cold water on efforts to restart the U.S. economy sometime in the coming month or two, which is seen as a goal of the White House and other policymakers.

“Given that countries currently in ‘summer’ climates, such as Australia and Iran, are experiencing rapid virus spread, a decrease in cases with increases in humidity and temperature elsewhere should not be assumed,” the NAS report finds.