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Posthaste: Coronavirus outbreaks could continue into 2024, requiring some social distancing into 2022, says Harvard study

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April 16, 2020

Good Morning!

The threat of a resurgence of coronavirus could be with us for the next four years, prompting the need for some level of social distancing into 2022, says a new Harvard study.

The research, by a team from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says that recurrent winter outbreaks of the virus SARS-CoV-2 (the official name of COVID-19) could continue until 2024.

To contain this and prevent health care facilities from being overwhelmed, the study suggests that prolonged or intermittent social distancing may be necessary into 2022 unless a vaccine or improved treatment is found or critical care capacity is increased substantially.

The study, published this week in the journal Science, comes as countries around the world consider easing coronavirus shutdowns. In the U.S., which now has the world’s highest infections and deaths, President Donald Trump cited May 1 as a target, but many state governors are forming regional alliances to set their own dates. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this week that non-essential businesses will remain shut for several more weeks, and Ontario extended its shutdown, which was due to expire on April 23, for another 28 days.

Public health authorities now believe it is unlikely SARS-CoV-2 will follow its closest relative SARS-CoV-1 and be wiped out after a brief, intense epidemic, the study says. Rather its transmission could resemble a pandemic influenza that circulates seasonally, with winter being the peak season.

While COVID-19 fatality rates (0.6% and 3.5%) are lower than SARS and MERS, its high infectiousness near the start of often mild symptoms makes it harder to control, and more study needs to be done on the duration of immunity, the study says. If immunity is permanent, the virus could disappear for five or more years after causing a major outbreak, but researchers consider this unlikely. If immunity is short-term (40 weeks) be prepared for annual outbreaks.

The researchers acknowledge the economic fallout of social distancing and stress they are not advocating any specific course of action.

“Our goal in modelling such policies is not to endorse them but to identify likely trajectories of the epidemic under alternative approaches,” they wrote. “We do not take a position on the advisability of these scenarios given the economic burden that sustained distancing may impose, but we note the potentially catastrophic burden on the healthcare system that is predicted if distancing is poorly effective and-or not sustained for long enough.”


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A MESSAGE OF HOPE, literally, shines in the windows of the River Cree Resort & Casino in Edmonton this week. The resort is closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. IAN KUCERAK/POSTMEDIA


  • Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz and senior deputy Governor Carolyn Wilkins appears by videoconference before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance at 4 p.m. ET. Finance Minister Bill Morneau appears from 6 p.m. to 6:45 p.m.
  • The Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA) will be hosting a virtual press conference to discuss the domestic food supply during the COVID-19 crisis.
  • Online press conference for income supports for essential workers: Migrant and undocumented workers from Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton as well as those unable to come back to Canada from Mexico and Trinidad, and key labour, migrant and medical doctors.
  • B.C. Finance Minister Carole James and Selina Robinson, minister of municipal affairs and housing, discuss new relief measures for businesses and local governments facing financial pressures as a result of COVID-19.
  • Today’s data: Canadian manufacturing sales, StatsCan EI report (for Jan-Feb), U.S. housing starts and building permits
  • Notable Earnings: Honeywell International Inc



How stringent is your lockdown? The Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford is now tracking the policy measures put in place by 112 countries to combat the spread of the coronavirus in its “Stringency Index”. The index tracks imposed restrictions such as school closures, travel bans, closing public transit, cancelling events, even contract tracing, with the goal of determining whether the measures actually reduce cases. That answer might be a ways off, but the chart below (showing 44 of the 112 countries in the period between March 30 and April 5) allows comparisons between countries. Canada is in about the middle of stringency while countries like India impose more restrictions and the United States fewer.



Today’s Posthaste was written by Pamela Heaven (@pamheaven), with files from The Canadian Press, Thomson Reuters and Bloomberg.

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