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Coronavirus outbreak to last until summer, researchers say

Speculation that summer heat could limit the spread of the virus offers hope for a short window of relief in Finland.

Kuvassa on hengityssuojainta käyttävä nainen.
Image: Silja Viitala / Yle
Yle News

The duration of the novel coronavirus pandemic -- or at least its first wave -- is likely to last at least until the middle of summer in Finland, according to a new analysis.

The Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) has been working with different universities to try and model the likely duration of the outbreak in Finland. Social Affairs and Health Ministry permanent secretary Kirsi Varhila presented the results of that work on Yle's A-studio discussion programme on Tuesday.

"At best we are talking about 120 days -- so we are looking at a scale of three to four months," she declared.

According to the analysis, the first week of the epidemic was counted as the beginning of March; 120 days from that takes the calculation to end of June-early July.

A shorter duration for the epidemic would also mean more people contracting the virus during the peak of the outbreak. According to Varhila, it would be better to extend the time frame to prevent overburdening the public healthcare system, possibly to 160 days or until the end of summer.

Varhila pointed out however that the data she presented was a forecast. She added that limitations on large gatherings have already improved the projections in the model. But she added that it would be another two weeks before the impact of social distancing measures could be calculated.

Additional restrictions, including a decision to restrict movement between the Uusimaa region and the rest of the country are likely to be implemented by Friday.

Hospital care needed for thousands

The THL and the University of Turku also released an analysis about hospital care capacity required during the epidemic. It predicted that 11,300 people would need hospital treatment, while 3,600 of them would require intensive care.

The model assumes that people who contract Covid-19, the disease caused by novel coronavirus, would need to be hospitalised on average 10 days after infection. Researchers also assumed that the average hospital stay would be eight days, while treatment in an intensive care unit would last twice as long.

Summer heat a factor?

Researchers in other countries have speculated that the spread of the virus could slow down as conditions warm up heading into summer. This has been the case with other viral diseases.

According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), it does not seem that rising temperatures and more moist air will have a significant effect on the spread of novel coronavirus. According to a situation report issued by the agency on Wednesday, the virus seems to also thrive in warm, damp conditions.

The ECDC said that although previously-known coronaviruses tend to proliferate especially during winter, there is no evidence so far that the virus behind the current pandemic behaves the same way. The organisation pointed out that the virus has also spread in tropical climates such as in Singapore and Guangxi, South China.

However researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the USA have published a brief analysis on the subject on the Social Science Research Networks service. They said that 90 percent of infections occurred in areas where temperatures ranged between three and 17 degrees Celsius and where humidity varied from four to nine grams per cubic metre.

They noted that just six percent of novel coronavirus infections occurred in countries with average temperatures above 18 degrees Celsius and with humidity exceeding nine grams per cubic metre.

The MIT research therefore suggests that the susceptibility to infection appeared to be lower in warmer and damper climates. This in turn leads some to believe that the virus might be less infectious during the summer months in large parts of North America and Europe.

Unfortunately for Finland, the low-infection conditions referred to in the study usually only occur in July. If the theory is borne out, it would still offer only a very short window for slowing the spread of the virus.

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