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Infectious Diseases

16 April 2020

Physical distancing might need to be practised intermittently until 2022 - study

With physical distancing measures firmly in place to curb the rampant coronavirus spread, we are wondering when things will return to normal. Not soon, according to a new study.

A team of Harvard scientists, who modelled the trajectory of the current coronavirus, came to the conclusion that a once-off lockdown, which many countries around the world are currently experiencing, will not completely eradicate the new coronavirus.

Instead, this team suggested in a study that Covid-19 will become seasonal, and that may require intermittent measures of physical distancing to curtail the spread and take the load off health systems.

The study consists of a computer simulation depicting the possible Covid-19 trajectory, which was published in the journal Science.

Seasonal coronaviruses are not new – a couple of strains are known to cause mild cold symptoms.

A single lockdown will not be enough

But in the first stages of the new coronavirus pandemic, little is understood about how people acquire immunity against Covid-19. It is also understood that, while most of the cases are mild and people are able to recover, those who suffer from severe symptoms do require hospitalisation and even ventilation – and when there are too many cases, hospitals simply cannot cope with the influx of patients.

While no targeted treatment and no vaccine are yet available, we are relying on measures of physical distancing in the form of a nationwide lockdown.

But according to the study authors, such a once-off lockdown will simply not be enough.

"We found that one-time physical distancing measures are likely to be insufficient to maintain the incidence of SARS-CoV-2 (the new coronavirus) within the limits of critical care capacity in the United States. What seems to be necessary in the absence of other sorts of treatments are intermittent physical distancing periods," lead author Stephen Kissler was quoted in a report.

Authors also wrote that widespread viral testing would be the only way to determine if and when these intermittent measures of physical distancing should be applied if Covid-19 were found to peak seasonally.

Understanding based on guesses

According to them, duration and intensity of lockdown measures can be relaxed as soon as a vaccine becomes available.

But right now, while several companies are developing vaccines, the only way to take the load off strained healthcare systems would be to implement physical distancing where and when needed.

A drawback of the this study is that little is currently understood about how we acquire immunity against Covid-19. Right now our understanding is based on guesses extrapolated from previous coronavirus outbreaks.

But according to the authors, it’s unlikely that this coronavirus will simply disappear.

READ | Why physical distancing is important - but an expert thinks the '2m rule' may not be enough 

READ | Multiple measures of physical distancing required to slow coronavirus

READ | Annual 'Covid-19 season' may be here to stay, scientists predict

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