Since Covid-19 was first identified on a large scale, researchers have questioned if weather plays a part in the spread or demise of the virus. Some scientists thought it would be like the flu where warmer temperatures would reduce the infection rate. Other scientists believe that seasonal factors do not have a significant impact on pandemics. So, which is it? The answer lies in who you ask. The facts will come with the continuation of more observational data, the evolution of quality research and scientific discourse –which is where we are now.
A new study from the University of Nicosia in Cyprus and published in the Physics of Fluids has found that “hot weather and wind have a bigger impact on virus transmission rates than social distancing during a pandemic.” Their study concludes that two outbreaks per year is a natural phenomenon during a massive outbreak. Temperature, humidity, and wind can help predict when a second wave will peak.
The researchers assert that typical models for predicting the behavior of an epidemic contain only two variables, transmission and recovery rates, but should be expanded to also account for weather factors, such as temperature, relative humidity, and wind speed. The researchers call their new weather-dependent variable the Airborne Infection Rate (AIR) index.
An earlier study led by an epidemiologist at the Sydney School of Veterinary Science and in collaboration with a research team in Shanghai, China, also found an association between lower humidity and increased transmission. The researchers assert that humidity is a key factor in the spread of Covid-19.
These findings contrast with other recent research that has found weather has little impact on transmission. A research team from the University of Texas at Austin found temperature and humidity have little influence on this pandemic’s path. The study was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. This finding aligns with the positions of the Center for Disease Control and World Health Organization which state “currently there is no conclusive evidence that either weather or climate have a strong influence on transmission.” Covid-19 has been transmitted in all regions of the world, in different climates and in all seasons. This body of evidence points more to human behavior as the key factor in transmission.
So, why the diametrically opposed results? All these studies were conducted by scientists at respected universities and published in peer review journals. Just like the evolution of any body of science, it comes down to observational data, and even how the data is observed. For example, several of the studies state the difference in findings boils down to whether the results were found in a lab-controlled setting or in a real-world environment. The tenets of quality research are that the results must be replicable and validated by other experiments. Unfortunately, it is still too early in the pandemic to make conclusive statements about the role of weather and Covid-19 transmission.
Numerical models improve with better research and new observations, which takes time. For example, in weather, meteorologists do a good job of predicting a storm’s path but are still challenged on predicting exactly which cloud will turn into a severe storm, producing a tornado or hail. And, it was not that long ago that our assumptions about what mechanisms caused a tornado to form were revised to include multiple variables that we had not considered. This evolution came from decades of research and hypothesis confirmed, or refuted, through observational data.
The good news is that we have multiple well-respected researchers and scientists from a cross-discipline of fields and across the globe working fervently on this issue. Our willingness to have public discourse about the findings, even when ambiguous or contradictory, is essential to stopping this pandemic. What we should keep in mind when reading the research is that it is not yet fact and to act so can hurt our chances for success. An opinion piece in Nature Communications, warns that misconceptions about weather and climate transmission does more than bodily harm. It shapes medical, business and community response, as well as future policy and regulations. So, while we continue to discover the cause of Covid-19 transmission our best path forward is to follow the recommended guidelines and keep conversations open to the facts that will eventually prevail.
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