Coronavirus: Climate could be key factor limiting community infection in GCC

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The Arabian Gulf region has seen relatively low community infection rates of coronavirus due to good infrastructure, screening, travel bans and public health information, experts say. But it may also have one advantage over many other regions in the fight against the virus – climate, according to a study.

A new investigation by the University of Maryland found that the virus has so far spread predominately east and west, rather than south and north, indicating that climate and latitude could be a factor in how the virus spreads.

Coronavirus hotspots that have seen community spread, in other words, where it’s been transmitted widely among members of a community rather than just found in those returning from other locations, roughly fall within the same latitude range.

“One conclusion is that it will have a harder time establishing community infection in hotter climates,” Dr. Mohammad Sajadi, the study’s lead author and associate professor at the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine told Al Arabiya English.

Sajadi said the effects humidity are still unclear.

Hotspots for community spread such as Iran, South Korea, Japan, and northern Italy are all located roughly along the 30-50 degrees north latitude, a study conducted at University of Maryland’s Institute of Human Virology found.

In these countries, the virus’s spread has been particularly widespread. Officials in northern Italy put areas on lockdown to attempt to limit the virus’s toll. In Lombardy, the Italian epicenter of coronavirus, where more than 460 have died and more than 7,300 have been infected, 8 percent of those diagnosed have died; globally death rates stand around 1-2 percent. In Iran, the official death toll has passed 350 and there are over 9,000 cases, but other sources estimate the figures to be far higher.

GCC nations have seen relatively low case counts, in part because of sound infrastructure and screening procedures, experts told Al Arabiya English. Gulf nations have also taken precautions to close borders and limit travel.

The region has the financial and human resources to handle an outbreak and they have worked on implementing health security plans, World Health Organization Emergency Preparedness Manager Dr. Dalia Samhouri told Al Arabiya English.

The GCC nations have also effectively communicated with their populations personal safety measures to take as well as disseminated public health information quickly. They also canceled large events, as limiting social interaction is important to contain the spread.

“In the UAE, the news outlets have been pretty good at explaining to the public what to do in terms of social distancing,” said Dr. Marie-Louise Van Eck, regional medical director for the Middle East and North Africa at International SOS, a medical and travel security services firm. “General hygiene measures and public education are the big things.”

Read more: In coronavirus fight, misinformation remains major barrier: Expert

But the new study, titled “Temperature and latitude analysis to predict potential spread and seasonality for COVID-19,” suggests the Gulf’s warm climate may also be a contributing factor to the virus’s low impact.

GCC nations have also not seen significant community spread, with most cases reported in travelers and those who have come in close contact with someone with the virus. Most of the initial cases in the Gulf were travelers who had returned from Iran.

Read more: Coronavirus hits all GCC countries: Iran travel link, figures and measures taken

The study shows that the virus did not spread massively to countries geographically close to China as expected, and instead proliferated in similar climate zones.

“Because of geographical proximity and significant travel connections, epidemiological modeling of the epicenter predicted that regions in Southeast Asia, and specifically Bangkok would follow Wuhan, and China in the epidemic,” the study read.

However, Bangkok’s infection rate has been low, with only 59 cases so far, according to the Bangkok Post. The most recent six cases were confirmed in two airport workers who had contact with travelers and handled passports and luggage.

Other factors contributing to mild to no community spread "could include lack of introduction of the virus, air-travel patterns, population density, variations in the immune system in different seasons, changes in human behavior in different climates, differences in public health response, pre-existing immunity to a different coronavirus that helps prevent COVID-19, among others," Sajadi said.

The authors said their results did not necessarily show causal effect, but there is a correlation present.

“The above factors, climate variables not considered or analyzed (cloud cover, maximum temperature, etc.), human factors not considered or analyzed (impact of epidemiologic interventions, concentrated outbreaks like cruise ships, travel, etc.), viral factors not considered or analyzed (mutation rate, pathogenesis, etc.), mean that although the current correlations with latitude and temperature seem strong, a direct causation has not been proven and predictions in the near term are speculative and have to be considered with extreme caution,” the study concluded.

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