Flaw with the ‘second wave’ theory
Fear of a "second wave" of the coronavirus is creating "dangerous misconceptions" and could actually cause a resurgence of the disease before the first wave is over, a global expert has warned.
Dr Jeremy Rossman is a senior lecturer in virology at Britain's University of Kent. He has a PhD in emerging infectious diseases.
In an article published by The Conversation UK this week, Dr Rossman wrote that the entire concept of a second wave was "flawed".
"The idea of a second wave stems from the flawed comparison with the seasonality of the flu virus," he explained.
When the coronavirus first emerged, analysis of the disease often focused on the various characteristics it shared with influenza. Both are respiratory infections. Both usually cause only mild symptoms, but can be deadly.
"It was tempting to assume that COVID-19 would behave similarly to a flu pandemic. Yet these are very different viruses with very different behaviour," Dr Rossman wrote.
"COVID-19 has a far greater fatality rate compared with the flu, along with a much higher rate of hospitalisations and severe infection."
And there is still one massive, key unknown.
Given the coronavirus's similarities to the flu, many people have assumed the disease will be seasonal - that it will fade or even disappear in the summer months and come back with a vengeance in winter.
The flu dies down in the summer because of higher humidity, increased ultraviolet light and people spending less time indoors.
As it stands, we simply don't know whether any of those factors will affect the coronavirus.
"Influenza is a seasonal virus. Every year we see cases of the flu begin in early autumn, increase over the winter and then wind down as we approach summer," said Dr Rossman.
"This repeats years, and so if a new strain of flu emerges we would probably have a first wave of infections during winter-spring, then the virus would come back in a second wave in autumn-winter the following year.
"It is tempting to speculate that COVID-19 will decline or disappear during the summer, only to reappear gets colder. But we don't know if COVID-19 is a seasonal virus."
You might wonder what any of this has to do with the fears of a second wave.
Dr Rossman's argument is that thinking of the coronavirus as a seasonal disease could lead us to assume it is beyond our control, and will return no matter what we do.
"The concept of a second wave implies that it is something inevitable, something intrinsic to how the virus behaves. It goes away for a bit, then comes back with a vengeance," he said.
"But this idea fails to take into account the importance of ongoing preventative actions and portrays us as helpless and at the whim of this pathogen."
This message is particularly relevant in Dr Rossman's native Britain, where lockdown rules have been relaxed in recent weeks and talk has turned to dealing with a second wave - even though the first wave isn't even over.
"We are not between waves. We have new cases in the UK every day. We are in an ebb and flow of COVID-19 transmission that is continually affected by our precautionary actions," said Dr Rossman.
"Letting up precautions will lead to an increase in cases. This is the new normal, and what to expect until we have an effective vaccine with significant population uptake. Until then we have to depend on our actions to keep cases low."
Britain is still recording more than a thousand new cases per day. Here in Australia, the numbers are far better, but community transmission remains a threat.
Concerns were sparked earlier this week by the news that multiple Black Lives Matter protesters had tested positive for the coronavirus. Meanwhile, three schools in Victoria were shut down because students had become infected.
Health officials have used the spectre of a potential second wave to urge people to keep following the social distancing guidelines.
"A second wave is where we see large numbers increasing and where we couldn't quickly contain those outbreaks or those small clusters," the federal government's Chief Nursing and Midwifery Officer, Alison McMillan, told Today.
"Now, we're nowhere near that at the moment, but that's because of the terrific work that everyone continues to do and we need to keep doing that.
"Stay home if you're sick, the physical distancing, the strict hand hygiene, the cough etiquette, all those things are going to help us prevent any resurgence or any second wave with the community.
"Just because we're seeing lower numbers doesn't mean we can stop doing those things."
In China - the original epicentre of the outbreak - the threat of a second wave appears to be more immediate.
A new cluster of cases in the country's capital, Beijing has led to a swift government crackdown in an attempt to prevent widespread infection.
Beijing has recorded more than 100 infections in the last week, which is China's most significant surge of cases in months.
Many of the new cases have been linked to the city's Xinfadi wholesale market. Authorities have been testing market workers, anyone who visited it in the last two weeks, and anyone else who came into contact with either group.
Fresh meat and seafood in the city is also being inspected, in case that is how the virus spread.
A lockdown has been imposed on residential communities around the market, and officials are barring residents of areas considered high risk from leaving Beijing. Anyone from such areas who has already left must report to local health bureaus as soon as possible.
Taxis and car-hailing services have been banned from taking people out of the city.
"The risk of the epidemic spreading is very high, so we should take resolute and decisive measures," Xu Hejiang, a spokesman for the city government, said on Monday.
According to the Chinese Communist Party's mouthpiece newspaper, The Global Times, a total of 29 communities in Beijing have now been locked down, and the city is in "wartime mode".
"Beijing is the capital of China, so the new epidemic outbreak will easily send shockwaves across the country. It is of vital importance that the latest outbreak in Beijing does not impede the national resumption of work and production. This is also a test for Chinese society," the paper wrote in an editorial.
"The Chinese people need to stay calm, while officials shouldn't be concerned about being held accountable if new infections appear. China should be more mature after each stage of the battle against the epidemic.
"Beijing has acted quickly and properly in handling the latest outbreak. We hope this case could be a lesson for China in facing the normalcy of the virus fight."
China had relaxed many of its coronavirus restrictions after the Communist Party declared victory over the disease in March.
Originally published as Flaw with the 'second wave' theory