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Wits experts to speak at international symposium on climate and environmental factors in COVID-19

- Wits University

Symposium coincides with the publication of their article on environmental drivers and the potential seasonality of COVID-19.

Three Wits experts in climate change have been invited to deliver presentations at the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) virtual global symposium that will review the relationship between weather, climate and environmental factors and the spread of COVID-19.

Professors Bob Scholes and Francois Engelbrecht of the Global Change Institute and Professor Jennifer Fitchett from the School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies, will be part of the panel of experts that will be taking part in the symposium jointly hosted by the WMO and international science partners.

Scholes and Engelbrecht will be presenting on simulations of COVID-19 in South Africa under seasonality, while Fitchett will discuss early research on COVID-19 and climate co-present a poster on ways on improving the stability of projections from models.

Fitchett, Engelbrect and Scholes are also co-authors of an academic article entitled Winter is Coming: A southern Hemisphere Perspective of the  Environmental Drivers of SARS-CoV-2 and the Potential Seasonality of COVID-19, published in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. This work is part of their involvement in the COVID-19 Environmental Reference Group (CERG) formed under the auspices of the Department of Science and Innovation. 

The coronavirus pandemic continues to spread globally, within a wide range of climates and seasonal and environmental settings.

Environmental conditions  are not the principle drivers of the first wave of the pandemic. Nonetheless, questions remain as to whether factors such as temperature, humidity, air quality and ultraviolet light influence the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the disease (COVID-19) that it causes.

“It is critical to understand whether meteorological, climatological and environmental factors promote the spread of the disease either outdoors or indoors. This is a pertinent scientific question that is the subject of numerous studies,” said Professor Jürg Luterbacher, WMO Chief Scientist and Director of Science and Innovation.

“COVID-19 is likely to be prevalent beyond the initial pandemic phase for several years. Better understanding of whether it will be influenced by seasonal environmental and weather conditions, as is the case with many other respiratory viruses and diseases, will help inform public health policy and management of the disease in the coming months and years,” said Dr Joy Shumake-Guillemot of the WMO/World Health Organization Joint Climate and Health Office.

The disease originally manifested in the Northern Hemisphere in early to mid-winter, in places with temperate climates, and spread east and west in an initially quite narrow climate band. This could reflect a climate sensitivity, but could just as plausibly reflect trade and human movement patterns.

Some countries currently facing the highest COVID-19 burdens are located in the tropics and subtropics. But there are also increasing case counts in some Southern Hemisphere countries as they move into winter. Whether this is a meteorologically driven phenomenon is yet to be determined.

Similarly, there are concerns about a resurgence in the next Northern Hemisphere winter, but these speculations are based largely on experience with other respiratory diseases which peak in winter and not on firm knowledge of COVID-19 climate sensitivities.

The e-symposium aims to create a forum to review and discuss existing studies in order to inform the state of knowledge that already exists and provide guidance for future research, according to Professor Ben Zaitchik, John Hopkins University and chair of the symposium’s scientific committee.

The symposium was initiated by a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University, WMO and ACCESS programme in South Africa, and co-hosted by a wide range of scientific partners including the American Geophysical Union (AGU), U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, World Council Research Programme, SENAHMI Peru, International Science Council, Elsevier, FutureEarth, GeoHealth Community of Practice, the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology and the Pacific Science Association .

More than 450 participants will consider some 100 contributions on the topic from researchers from around 20 countries. There will be several keynote presentations, and panels and breakout sessions on understanding dynamics, forecasts and projections, and actionable information.

There will be a concluding statement on the outcomes and the future of research on this aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic. Symposium proceedings will be published by Elselvier OneHealth journal.

The outcomes of the conference will also support the work of a newly established WMO Research Board Task Team on COVID-19 and climate and environmental factors, which will provide official scientific direction on the topic through 2021.