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This is how we can stop COVID-19

by - 24 March

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that the coronavirus disease pandemic is "accelerating", with more than 380,000 cases now confirmed, over 17 000 death cases and over 103 000 recovered. 

What is needed to contain the the COVID-19 pandemic, which countries are doing best and which are late, does the warm weather help, can you get coronavirus twice, how long are you immune and how will we know that we have stopped it - I asked these questions Dr. Tara C. Smith, an epidemiologist at Kent State University.

Dr. Smith’s research generally focuses on zoonotic infections (infections which are transferred between animals and humans. Her work has been profiled in many major publications, including Science, Nature, and The New York Times.

Tara, how the COVID-19 pandemic compares to other pandemics? Why it looks like the worst outbreak we’ve ever seen?
We’re not really sure. The other outbreaks are largely over; this one is only beginning. Certainly comparisons can be made to the 1918 influenza pandemic, at least in the potential effect this has ultimately regarding infections and deaths, and the impact it has already on our day to day lives.

What are the best measures to stop the virus globally?
I think the most successful have been broad testing, isolation of cases, and quarantine of those exposed. South Korea and Iceland have been leading in testing, while the United States has lagged and so is using strategies to mitigate the outbreak rather than try to contain it.

Which countries do you think are taking the best measures to control the virus and which responded late?
South Korea has really been a leader. The US, Italy, and other Western countries by and large have been behind the curve, responding late and in the case of the US having very limited tests and now even personal protective equipment.

Does the warm weather help to reduce the new infections?
We don’t know for sure, but looking at areas where it’s currently warm and still circulating (Singapore, Australia) I don’t have much hope that warm weather is going to substantially reduce the rate of new infections.

Can we expect a second wave in the fall?
Also unsure. It may wane a bit in the summer and come back in fall as with influenza, but we have to be careful extrapolating what we know about influenza to coronavirus. They’re similar in some ways but very different in others.

Can you get coronavirus twice? How long are you immune?
Also don’t know. We expect people will be immune maybe 1-3 years based on examination of those previously infected with SARS but we aren’t sure, and won’t know without following the infected for years to watch for antibody development.

How will we know that we have successfully stopped it?
I think we will have to carefully examine not only infections but primarily the serious outcomes. Even if we have ongoing infections (which are likely), if we can keep our hospitals from overflowing and keep case numbers low, that might be as “successful” as we’re going to get.

There are models suggesting that the COVID-19 pandemic would return within a few weeks of the restrictions being lifted. So when do you think we could return to normal life without the disease breaking out again?
The hope is that we could return to a containment stage from mitigation. If we (and I mean collectively—any country that is currently doing mitigation and extreme social distancing) can get tests ramped up and get access to more PPE and supplies needed to do tests (including swabs for sampling) we could in theory do extensive testing and isolation of patients and quarantine of those exposed like they’re doing in South Korea.

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