The machine that powers human activity is far more fragile than we have always thought.
By Alex Dew
As the novel coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease it carries have swept through the world, many have looked to the coming summer months as a possible means of salvation. Numerous viruses, such as the norovirus and the flu, typically peak in the cold, winter months. And many cities that became early Coronavirus hotbeds, like Wuhan, China and northern Italy, are known for their cold, dry weather. Further, several countries that are geographically close to China but have warmer weather like Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines have seen relatively few cases despite failing to take protective measures.
There have even been a few studies suggesting an inverse link between coronavirus’ ability to spread and heat and humidity. Coronavirus is an “enveloped virus,” meaning it is wrapped in an oily coating. This lipid bilayer makes enveloped viruses more vulnerable to heat, causing them to often display a seasonal preference. “Climate comes into play because it affects the stability of the virus outside the human body when expelled by coughing or sneezing, for example,” explained Miguel Araújo, a scientist studying the effects of environmental change on biodiversity at the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid, Spain.
Two scientists at MIT uploaded a study last week showing that 90% of coronavirus cases have occurred within a temperature range of 37 to 63 degrees. According to the authors, warm areas of the United States and Florida have experienced slower rates of spreading than colder ones. A study at the University of Maryland echoed these findings and added that the virus seemed to be spreading most rapidly in locations with low relative humidity.
In the absence of a vaccine that likely won’t be available for another eighteen months, some people are banking on the summer heat to save us from coronavirus. One of my Instagram friends recently posted a picture in her bikini with the caption “#coronavirustanning #virusdiesinheat #idonthaveittho.” I’ve even seen some people on Twitter arguing that heat caused by global warming could be the answer. But before you put on your Speedo and start leaving your car running in the driveway, it’s important to note that none of these studies has been peer-reviewed and that the novel coronavirus is exactly that: it is too new for us to really know much about it.
And many of the studies, including those at MIT and the University of Maryland, have been completed using computer modeling rather than a laboratory or the real world. Experts caution against taking these findings as gospel. “The virus is transmitting quite easily in Singapore and in Hong Kong where it is now late spring. There is nothing better than observation — if the virus has any characteristics that impede its transmission in hot and humid climates, it has not yet manifested them in the tropics,” said David Heymann, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Moreover, other studies conflict with the heat-as-remedy studies. Researchers at Harvard Medical School who studied the spread of the disease in tropical places found that increases in heat and humidity are unlikely to slow it down. This is because the spread of any virus depends on lots of variables, such as human behavior. And even if it were true that the virus finds it tougher going in warm, tropical places, many Northern Hemisphere hotspots such as Paris and Boston do not experience a significant jump in heat or humidity during summer. Not to mention that any slow-down in locations experiencing profound weather changes would likely be temporary, with the virus coming back in full force once the weather cooled down in the fall.
We must be careful about attributing any positive effects to climate change because doing so undermines the terrifying truth that we must act fast if we want to save the planet. The evidence suggesting heat is the answer to slowing the spread of coronavirus is spotty and unvetted and runs counter to arguments that climate change can actually lead to an increase in virus-borne diseases. Professor Jem Bendell controversially hypothesized that the bats responsible for carrying the coronavirus and transmitting it to humans may have altered their migrations due to climate change, putting them in closer proximity to humans.
While establishing a causal link between coronavirus and climate change is difficult, numerous experts agree that the increase in zoonotic viruses, or viruses carried by animals, like Ebola and SARS, can be linked to the invasion of humans into areas that were largely untouched until recently. As we continue our relentless expansion into the natural world, mining, deforesting, and building roads, not only do we increase production of the greenhouse gases from industry and human activity, but we come into closer contact with animals that may carry dangerous pathogens like the coronavirus. Further, as the planet warms and animals change migration patterns, they come into greater contact with other potentially-disease carrying animals in addition to humans. Increased interspecies contact increases the potential of pathogen transmission among animal species and between humans and animals.
If there is one truth the coronavirus pandemic has made painfully clear, it is that the machine that powers human activity is far more fragile than we have always thought. We all now inhabit a world we couldn’t fathom mere weeks ago; life as we knew it has screeched to a halt. In the absence of conclusive science on whether increasing temperatures will save us from coronavirus, we have to focus on what we do know: that we are more vulnerable than we imagined, and we have to make the changes necessary to reduce known threats like climate change.
There’s some good news too: the social distancing measures taken up to fight coronavirus have been beneficial to our planet. In the month of February alone, China experienced a 25% drop in carbon emissions. So while you’re mourning the loss of your social life and trying not to go insane from cabin fever, you can go for a walk and take heart in the knowledge that not only are you limiting the spread of coronavirus, you’re also helping the planet.