Elon Answers: Warmer weather itself won’t help

This is part of a series of articles featuring responses by Elon University faculty members to questions about the novel coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) submitted by Alamance County community members.

Will the coronavirus pandemic end when the temperature heats up? Does weather/fresh air affect the virus in any way?

Unfortunately, the current spread of COVID-19 is probably not affected by weather. Data from the Coronavirus Research Center at John Hopkins University show the pandemic is now spreading rapidly in both warm and cold countries throughout the world.

Dave Gammon, professor of biology

Viruses cannot survive in hot humid conditions outside the body, so over the next several years it is possible COVID-19 might be more common in winter than the summer. Right now, however, any seasonal effect is getting swamped by the lack of immunity in seven billion humans. The coronavirus mostly lives within the lungs and trachea of humans. These organs maintain a constant temperature, regardless of the weather. Hot baths and hot drinks will not protect you against COVID-19.

Going outside to enjoy the warm spring weather still matters for reasons of exercise and mental health, but breathing fresh air by itself likely has little or no impact on the virus.

Why did it take so long to get COVID19 test kits out in the community and available to anyone who needs them?

Widespread testing in the early weeks of the pandemic would have been ideal. Here in the United States many infected individuals spread COVID-19 without knowing they were infected. All infected individuals are contagious soon after exposure. For many, symptoms did not develop until a day or two after they were already contagious, and some carriers have no symptoms. Early testing and isolation of all infected individuals could have saved lives and prevented long-term economic damage.

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The United States reacted slowly with early testing, and we are still scrambling to catch up. Testing for COVID-19 is simple from a biological perspective and relatively cheap from an economic perspective. Countries such as South Korea, Russia, and Singapore developed effective tests early, and the spread of infection in those locations has been much lower.

Why did the United States take so long?

Our earliest test for COVID-19 was developed in February by the Centers for Disease Control, but contained a faulty ingredient. It took several weeks for the CDC to correct its error. Commercial labs, such as LabCorp, rushed to develop their own tests, but their efforts were held up throughout February by regulatory hurdles of the Food and Drug Administration. Political leaders, including President Donald Trump, could have sped up the process, but did not address the problem. A lack of early testing here in the United States meant we lost important time to get ahead of the exponential spread of infection.

Are there racial or gender differences in diagnosis, prognosis, detection, etc.? For example, is it true that fewer African Americans have COVID-19?

Catching COVID-19 probably has nothing to do with race or gender. The virus has no eyes, no brain, and simply wants to live in the moist cells lining human lungs. Every kind of human has moist cells lining their lungs, regardless of race, gender, nationality, or socioeconomic status.

There have been differences in outcomes based on biological sex. In both China and Italy, men are dying at much higher rates than women. It is too early to know why, but scientists think that this could be because of higher rates of smoking among men in those countries. We need more information to understand what is happening.

We also see differences in outcome related to race, gender, and socioeconomic status, as we do with most health problems. These outcome differences, however, do not result from built-in characteristics, but from differences in access to healthcare, food, and jobs.

Unlike the virus, we humans easily notice physical features like skin color, body shape or hair type. We also love to tell stories, regardless of whether the stories are true. Therefore, social media are awash with memes about how COVID-19 affects people based on racial or gender differences. Do not believe them.

The history of pandemics shows dangerous ideas about disease and race are stubbornly persistent. In 1793, Philadelphia experienced a terrible yellow fever epidemic, causing many to flee the city. Misguided medical authorities told African-Americans to stay behind because of their supposed natural immunity. The net result was the needless deaths of many black people because they were not immune to yellow fever.

In sum, all of us are susceptible to COVID-19. We can hope this pandemic will teach us to look beyond our differences and work together for the benefit of all.

To submit a question to our team of scientists, visit tinyurl.com/eloncovid19, email us at eloncovid19@gmail.com, or use social media with hashtag #eloncovid19. Answers will be published when they become available in the Burlington Times-News, at www.thetimesnews.com, and on Today at Elon.

Dave Gammon is a professor of biology at Elon University. Reach him at dgammon@elon.edu.