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Coronavirus can't be eliminated and may become a seasonal infection like flu, warn Chinese scientists

Researchers say this is because asymptomatic people can spread the virus rapidly, making it challenging to track and stop its transmission
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The new coronavirus may not be eliminated and could instead return as a seasonal virus like the flu, according to scientists from China. The experts reason that the coronavirus will likely not disappear like the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) did because SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19, can infect people who do not show any symptoms of the disease. This implies that asymptomatic people can spread the virus, making it challenging to track and stop its transmission.

"This is very likely to be an epidemic that co-exists with humans for a long time, becomes seasonal and is sustained within human bodies," said Jin Qi, director of Institute of Pathogen Biology, according to a Bloomberg report. This is one of the institutes under the flagship of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and Peking Union Medical College (CAMS&PUMC).

"It's unlikely the new virus will disappear the way its close cousin SARS did 17 years ago, as it infects some people without causing obvious symptoms like fever. This group of so-called asymptomatic carriers makes it hard to fully contain transmission as they can spread the virus undetected," a group of Chinese researchers said during a briefing in Beijing.

The SARS outbreak in 2003 was eventually contained through surveillance, prompt isolation of patients, contact tracing, strict enforcement of quarantine of all contacts, and in some areas top-down enforcement of community quarantine. By interrupting all human-to-human transmission, SARS was effectively eradicated 17 years ago. "Whether these (public health) measures (used during SARS) will also be successful for COVID-19 will not depend on the similarities but the differences between SARS and COVID-19," said a Lancet report published in March. Clear differences have emerged between COVID-19 and SARS, such as in transmissibility and severity pyramids.

According to experts, COVID-19 has higher transmissibility than SARS, and many more patients with COVID-19 rather than SARS have mild symptoms that contribute to virus spreading because these patients are often missed and not isolated. "Although asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic patients have been reported for SARS, no known transmission occurred from these patients," said the Lancet study. It added, "Because of the extent of community spread, traditional public health measures might not be able to halt all human-to-human transmission."

It is unlikely the new virus will disappear the way its close cousin SARS did 17 years ago, as it infects some people without causing obvious symptoms like fever (Getty Images)

These statements add to a growing consensus that COVID-19 may come back in waves. During a recent interview, Dr Robert Redfield, Director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), warned that a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic could hit the US next winter and that will be even more devastating for Americans to deal with than the current one as it may coincide with the start of flu season. "There’s a possibility that the assault of the virus on our nation next winter will actually be even more difficult than the one we just went through,” said Dr Redfield. 

Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), said during an interview with The Economic Club of Washington, DC, that the new coronavirus is not going to disappear from the world. “In my mind, it’s inevitable that we will have a return of the virus, or maybe even that it never went away," he said, according to a CNBC report

These opinions are also reflected in a testing blueprint recently released by the White House, which said that COVID-19 could co-circulate with influenza and other respiratory viruses in the fall. “The administration will update diagnostic testing algorithms and protocols to account for seasonality of influenza and other diseases that may occur concurrently. This effort is needed because, in Fall 2020, COVID-19 could co-circulate with influenza or other respiratory viruses,” it said. 

The Chinese researchers have also said that they have seen no evidence that the virus's spread will slow down during the summer. “The virus is heat-sensitive, but that’s when it’s exposed to 56 degrees Celsius for 30 minutes and the weather is never going to get that hot. So globally, even during the summer, the chance of cases going down significantly is small,” said Wang Guiqiang, head of the infectious diseases department of Peking University First Hospital.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has also warned that the worst is ahead of the world and that SARS-CoV-2 is a virus that many people still do not understand. Infectious disease experts are learning about how the virus behaves by watching emerging outbreaks in regions worldwide. 

Globally, more than 3,117,204 COVID-19 cases have been reported as of April 29, and over 217,193 have died in the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Johns Hopkins tracker.