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"Coronavirus infections could surge in autumn", Korean expert warns

March 24, 2020 | 22:41

There could be a surge of coronavirus infections in autumn, according to the forecast Monday (Mar 23) of Oh Myung-don, a renowned infectious diseases physician at Seoul National University Hospital, citing patterns of virus spread observed with the 1918 Spanish flu.

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Oh Myung-don speaks to reporters at the National Medical Center in Seoul, South Korea, March 23. Photo: Yonhap

He said a vaccine is the only thing that can derail the scenario but it would take "at least 12 months from now" for one to be ready.

"The first surge (of Spanish flu infections) took place in the spring of 1918 and recurred in the autumn, on a bigger scale that was nearly five times the initial one," Oh said at the National Medical Center in Seoul. "If this pattern is any guide, it's possible the coronavirus pandemic could break out again in autumn, even bigger in scale."

He agreed with the widespread belief that the virus would lose strength when temperatures go up but will recover as chilly air blows in with autumn.

He said the opening of schools across the country on April 6 could put what he claims was "quite successful and stable containment of the virus" at risk. A sudden increase of infections among students is possible after schools open, dealing a blow to the painstaking nationwide "social distancing" campaign, he said.

"How far can we delay the opening of schools is a daunting challenge lying ahead," Oh said. "We are standing at a crossroads of keeping the rigid social distancing in place or letting the guard down a little bit. Whatever the decision, things need to be done in a way offering the best protection of our community."

He underscored that the ongoing pandemic is a "long-term game" that could continue for more than a year, urging the government to map out countermeasures, especially with regard to development and supply of vaccines, treatments and healthcare materials such as masks and protective gear.

Related discussions for policymaking should be based on factual data and scientific evidence to bring out the full-fledged cooperation of people, Oh said.

A separate study by a group of researchers including epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, found that sustained transmission of the coronavirus and the rapid growth in infections was possible in a range of humidity conditions – from cold and dry provinces in China to tropical locations, such as the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region in the far south of the country and Singapore.

“Weather alone, [such as an] increase of temperature and humidity as the spring and summer months arrive in the Northern Hemisphere, will not necessarily lead to declines in case counts without the implementation of extensive public health interventions,” said the study, which was published in February.

Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organisation’s health emergencies programme, also urged people not to assume the epidemic would automatically subside in the summer.

“We have to assume the virus will continue to have the capacity to spread,” he said.

“It’s a false hope to say, yes, it will disappear like the flu … we can’t make that assumption. And there is no evidence.”

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