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Explained: A year later, many unknowns about the role of the weather spread to Covid-19

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A full year in the Covid-19 pandemic, when the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has gone through all seasons, it is not yet fully understood how the virus behaves and responds to changing weather.

Although this remains a field of research globally, a 16-member Covid-19 Task Force constituted by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has not found concrete answers on the impact of certain meteorological parameters on coronavirus cases and associated mortality, across the world.

When the pandemic broke out, what role was the weather expected to play?

From the beginning after the first cases were reported from Wuhan in China in December 2019, the popular scientific speculation was that viral respiratory infection could indicate a seasonality.

Based on past experience with the flu, many medical and public health experts expected cases of viral respiratory infections to increase during the fall and winter months. And, fewer such infections would occur in mild climates and during the summer months. In addition, variations were predicted based on geographical location, altitude, and inter-annual variability.

However, in early attempts to document Covid-19 trends viz. Weather conditions and air quality, the results were not always as predicted. A number of studies have yielded uncertain and contradictory results.

So, did the weather not have an impact on the Covid-19 cases?

What can be said with a certain degree of certainty, as of now, is that the immunology of different populations goes far beyond environmental factors, with seasonality playing a relatively smaller but inevitable role.

The extent to which seasonality led to Covid-19 cases and led to global mortality is yet to be determined, according to the first report by the WMO Covid-19 Task Team, ‘Review of Meteorological and Air Quality Factors Affecting the Covid Pandemic -19 ‘, released last week.

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What do the studies suggest?

The WMO Working Team focused on three meteorological parameters ultraviolet radiation, air temperature and humidity. Based on some studies, what is known now –

UV radiation: Under controlled laboratory environments, the impact of UV on virus survival is clear, but its importance for SARS-Cov-2 transmission is yet to be proven. Many studies have drawn negative correlations or non-linear correlations between UV radiation and SARS-Cov-2 transmission indicators, which included the rate of random increase. But the possibility of the impact of UV radiation and its implications for the seasons, latitude and altitude remain undecided.

Temperature and humidity: Environments with cool temperatures (5C) and relatively low humidity (20-35%) positively affect the transmission of the virus through aerosols, especially in winter environments of medium latitude. In warm and humid environments, small breathing points are capable of absorbing water; when a larger point is placed on a surface it leads to transmission through contact than in air, especially in tropical climates.

Under large temperature variations, respiratory mortality increases. Exposure to high ambient temperatures, especially for the elderly, children, those who have pre-existing conditions and are vulnerable to heat, puts them at a higher risk of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.

AIR POLLUTION: Covid-19 infection can be exacerbated by prolonged exposure to polluted air, especially high levels of PM2.5, ozone and nitrous oxide, all of which can cause the immune system to malfunction. This in turn increases the chances of developing co-morbidity and seeking hospitalization. However, evidence on the impact of air quality on virus transmission remains limited.

HUMAN BEHAVIOR: This is being seen as the most consistent factor with a role in SARS-Cov-2 transmission. It has now been proven that transmission usually occurs when people gather inside enclosed spaces with poor ventilation. Excessive heat can force people to avoid masks, thus helping greater transmission. Warm conditions will also mean an increase in the use of air conditioners, increasing the risk of indoor transmission.

What are the main conclusions of the WMO Task Team, then?

SARS-Cov2 survives longer in cold, dry and low UV conditions, he said. But the dynamics of Covid-19 broadcasting in 2020 and 2021 (until the first week of January) seem to have been largely influenced by government interventions such as blockages, travel restrictions and the use of masks. Other transmitters of transmission include human behavior, demographics, population immunity, and virus mutations.

Meteorological factors and air quality should not be the basis on which governments relax intervention measures to curb the transmission of the virus, the task force has recommended.

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