Coronavirus: pandemic could last for months says top Hong Kong expert, as he disputes claim from Chinese peer crisis will be under control within weeks

Zoe Low

The global coronavirus pandemic could last a few more months even with heavy-handed prevention measures in place, a top Hong Kong epidemiologist has said, disputing the claim from another Chinese infectious disease expert that the crisis could be curbed in a matter of weeks.

Professor Gabriel Leung, of the University of Hong Kong, made the prediction on Friday, after China’s leading respiratory disease expert Zhong Nanshan said the day before the pandemic could be under control by late April, as countries took aggressive control measures and warmer weather diminished virus activity.

“Is warmer weather going to give us some respite? The answer is maybe, but probably not,” Leung said, during a live-streamed coronavirus updates forum organised by the Asia Society of Hong Kong.

“I agree for the northern hemisphere, the summer months might give us a bit of a breather, but not because it is the summer,” he said. “But because most of the susceptible people have already been exposed and either have been infected and recovered, while a small portion have died.”

The virus has already infected more than 1 million people globally, killing over 52,000. In Hong Kong, there have been 802 confirmed cases, and four deaths.

On Thursday, Zhong predicted the pandemic would be under control in a month, but did not say how he came to that conclusion.

“After late April, no one can say for sure if there will be another virus outbreak next spring or if it will disappear with warmer weather … though the virus’ activity will certainly diminish in higher temperatures,” Zhong said.

However, there is little solid evidence to support the theory that warmer weather slows the virus, and countries such as Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, which have temperatures in the low to mid-30s this time of year, and have each recorded more than 1,750 infections, and multiple deaths.

And Leung was at pains to point out that the virus that caused Covid-19 was completely new, meaning people had no immunity, and it could spread quickly, while 40 per cent of infections were spread by people displaying no symptoms during the incubation period, which made the pandemic hard to control.

It would take up to half the population having immunity, either through natural infection and recovery or a vaccine, before the outbreak would settle down. But a vaccine would not be available for at least a year, Leung said.

“This is going to be a marathon,” he said. “We are probably going to go through a few cycles of suppressing [infections] by very heavy-handed measures if necessary, lifting them as we see a lull, and then suppressing for the next few months at least.”

While Hong Kong has so far avoided a complete lockdown as in mainland China or parts of Europe, the authorities have ordered the closure of pubs and bars, karaoke lounges, mahjong parlours and nightclubs, while gatherings in restaurants have been limited to four people.

Another respiratory disease expert, Dr David Hui Shu-cheong, said on Thursday while it would soon be summer for the northern hemisphere, it would be winter in the southern half of the world.

“Through international travel, it can spread to the northern hemisphere. I think it will become seasonal for quite some time, until we have some level of herd immunity,” he said.

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