With global deaths approaching 1 million, the approaching flu season leaves many believing the only solution may be to wait for a vaccine.
The coronavirus worldwide death toll is expected to reach one million in a few days, based on figures from Johns Hopkins University which has collected global Covid-19 figures since the beginning of the outbreak.
With total cases over 33,138,000 and rising, the pandemic has devastated the global economy, increased poverty and unemployment, and sparked geopolitical tensions as it continues to spread unhindered in countries like India, Brazil, and the US.
The real numbers, however, are likely much higher, and will likely continue to grow for some time ahead of a looming second wave of infections.
But what is a second wave, and what’s driving it?
With relaxed lockdown rules, warnings of a resurgence of cases are growing, drawing on historical pandemics.
The second wave of the Spanish flu pandemic during 1918-20 was particularly devastating and more lethal than the first. The second wave of the H1N1 swine flu epidemic in 2009 to 2010 was also more lethal than the first.
In spite of record high cases and deaths throughout the world, experts warn of more tragedy with an upcoming flu season, and dropping temperatures.
While measures like social distancing, hand washing and mask wearing have quickly become the norm, epidemiologists are concerned that the infection is spreading to older at-risk populations while populations grow weary of health restrictions.
But what is it about the cold that will likely cause a second wave of infections?
For one, colder weather drives people indoors, which means less social distancing, and lower ventilation.
Studies also show that natural defences against viral infection like mucus and your nose’s cilia do not work as well in colder, dry climates. While no studies have been conducted on how Covid-19 acts during autumn and winter, experts’ concerns are founded on the behaviour of highly similar viruses like influenza.
It’s also speculated, if still unproven, that the virus may survive longer in winter months.
“While some studies do show that the virus can stay alive in the air anywhere between 4 to 16 hours, what they don’t tell you is that sunlight usually kills the virus within 7 minutes of exposure. The risk is indoors,” says Dr. Khalid Taskin, an independent virologist, who spoke to TRT World.
The biggest risk comes from people spending more time together at home, an enclosed space.
Another major factor behind the predicted second wave? The seasonal flu, which usually starts in October and ends in May. This raises fears that taxed health care systems and crowded hospitals could be overburdened, reducing effective treatment and quality of care to patients with Covid-19 or any other illness.
Scientists recently said that while the Covid-19 death toll may be high, death tolls due to other undiagnosed illnesses are likely to be higher as people avoid hospitals. While it may be too soon to say, experts predict a rise in cancer and cardiac deaths.
The effects of Covid-19 on someone who has already caught the common cold or seasonal flu have yet to be studied as well, but likely doesn’t bode well for the body’s struggling immune system.
That’s not all. The current strains of Covid-19 have more or less stabilised into what works for the virus, says Dr. Taskin.
“Once you have changing environmental factors some genetic strains will die off. But you’ll also get evolutionary pressure on the surviving strains. There’s a possibility the virus might mutate into something more resilient, transmissible or lethal,” adds the virologist.
If the Covid-19 virus mutates into something more lethal, the consequent pandemic would make the current one look small.
2 million deaths possible
The death toll from the coronavirus could easily double to 2 million before a successful vaccine becomes widespread, and could be even higher without collective action to fight the pandemic, an official at the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday.
"Unless we take action, the numbers you speak about are not only imaginable but sadly very likely," said Mike Ryan, head of the WHO emergencies program.
It may even already be happening. But it likely won’t be the same everywhere, depending on government decisions and enacted policies. For some countries, the first wave will never really end, but only grow more pronounced.
The next wave of Covid-19 is still unpredictable, because there’s still a lot about the virus that we don’t know, says Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and lead member of the US Trump administration's White House Coronavirus taskforce, in an interview with the The Washington Post.
What can you do?
What’s your role in this? For starters, social distancing is still a good idea, coupled with regular hand washing for 20 seconds. Wearing masks is still advised as well.
A recent study from Cambridge University suggests that if everyone wore a mask all the time, a second wave may be prevented altogether.
Getting a flu vaccine for yourself and family members may also reduce your risk of contracting both viruses at the same time, but for the most part, experts advise everyone to make peace with the fact that the pandemic is by no means over.
More critically, it’s still not certain whether people who recover from Covid-19 have immunity from the virus.
If there’s a chance of reinfection, herd immunity (when the majority of a population has had the virus, and extreme restrictions become unnecessary) is out of the question. But none of these studies are set in stone or established.
Dr. Anthony Fauci also warns in an interview that “the coronavirus might not ever be eradicated.”
That means for now, a vaccine may be the only safe solution.