It looks like cold and flu season could become ‘cold, flu and COVID-19’ season.
According to a paper by scientists in Lebanon and Qatar, transmission of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has been more aggressive in temperate regions during winter months.
If this pattern persists, it could mean that transmission of the virus peaks every year during the winter, becoming a seasonal virus like flu and other respiratory viruses that cause the common cold.
The seasonality of viruses is affected by a number of factors. Flu, for example, tends to peak in winter because people spend more time indoors in close proximity to each other; our immune systems are often weaker in the winter; and the flu virus is more stable in lower temperatures.
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The latest knowledge on the stability and transmission of SARS-CoV-2 suggests that COVID-19 might follow a similar pattern. “We think it’s highly likely, given what we know so far, that COVID-19 will eventually become seasonal,” said Dr Hassan Zaraket at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon.
However, the researchers stress that this will only happen once herd immunity is reached in the population, which is where enough people have achieved some level of immunity to COVID-19 – either through contracting the disease or through vaccination – for the spread of the disease to be halted.
It’s not yet known what percentage of the population will need to become immune for this to happen, and the researchers say that there could be multiple waves of COVID-19 beforehand. But once we reach that point, say the researchers, transmission of COVID-19 should drop off during the summer months as seasonal factors start to have more influence.
Until then, the coronavirus “will continue to cause outbreaks year-round,” said Zaraket. “Therefore, the public will need to learn to live with it and continue practicing the best prevention measures, including wearing of masks, physical distancing, hand hygiene and avoidance of gatherings.”
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How can I protect myself from the coronavirus when shopping?
You’ll have seen signs in your local supermarket advising you to keep two metres from others while moving around the store. This is key to reducing your chances of catching the virus while shopping.
The coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is spread through respiratory droplets that leave our mouth and nose when we cough, sneeze, or sometimes even talk. The droplets sprayed out by an infected person will contain the virus, which could then enter your body via your mouth, nose or eyes (this is why you shouldn’t be touching your face).
Respiratory droplets don’t usually travel more than one metre, so by keeping two metres from others, you’ll reduce the likelihood of being in the firing line. To make it easier to keep your distance, try to shop during off-peak hours, choose a store that’s limiting the number of people who can be inside at any one time, and use self-checkout if you can.
Keeping your hands clean is the other main thing you can do. If possible, wipe the trolley or basket handles with a disinfectant wipe when you arrive at the store. When you get home, wash your hands or use hand sanitiser before and after unpacking your bags.
A US study found that the coronavirus can survive for up to 24 hours on cardboard, and up to three days on hard, shiny surfaces such as plastic, so wiping down your purchases with a disinfectant spray or a soapy cloth before you put them away is another good habit to get into.
James is staff writer at BBC Science Focus magazine. He especially enjoys writing about wellbeing and psychology.
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