FACT CHECK | Is the coronavirus getting weaker? Experts weigh in

Detection of the pathogen coronavirus infection in the microbiology laboratory
Detection of the pathogen coronavirus infection in the microbiology laboratory
Valentina Russanov/Getty Images

Despite claims which have come out of Italy over the last couple of weeks from health experts suggesting the coronavirus is getting weaker, becoming a shadow of the virus it was during the country’s peak in March, the World Health Organization (WHO) and The National Institute For Communicable Diseases of South Africa (NICD) has warned against such claims.

Italian medics made the controversial comments based on data of the number of deaths, infected cases, severely ill patients and viral load in patient swabs declining or holding steady even as the country opens up again reported Daily Mail.

Leading virologist Arnaldo Caruso and Dr Alberto Zangrillo, the head of the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan made their respective comments, even claiming the virus no longer exists.

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Speaking to Reuters Dr Alberto said, “In reality, the virus clinically no longer exists in Italy” while Arnaldo suggested the virus could vanish even without a vaccine and that distancing and masks may no longer be needed soon, reported The Washington Post.

Italy has the fourth highest death toll in the world from Covid-19, with 34,043 people having died from the virus.

However, Professor Cheryl Cohen, Associate Professor in epidemiology at WITS and co-head of the Centre for Respiratory Disease and Meningitis at NICD told DRUM, there is no scientific evidence indicating the virus is becoming less pathogenic.

“The main reason why Covid-19 is going down now in many countries is generally thought to be the impact of physical distancing measures, testing and contact tracing and other public health measures rather than changes in the virus,” she says with WHO echoing similar sentiments.

During a media briefing last week WHO executive director for health emergencies, Dr Michael Ryan, warned that the virus is still a killer with thousands dying from it daily.

Part of the hypotheses he said they are exploring is the relationship between the dose, intensity and exposure that people have to the virus, because successful intervention in these could be the reason for milder and slower infection.

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Acknowledging that many parties have been fighting against the spread of the virus at community level he said, “It may in some ways have to do with the dose and length and intensity of exposure. We know with other viruses and other diseases that the dose, intensity and exposure can affect the severity of an illness” he said.

The progress we see could be a result of our own efforts and not the virus getting weaker he stated, “It may be that we are, as a community and as a globe, successfully reducing the number, intensity and frequency of exposure to the virus which on the face makes the virus look weaker.”

A change in behavior makes all the difference says Prof Cohen citing that the wearing of masks and social distancing contributes to curbing the spread. The virus is mainly transmitted through contact and droplets she says, “The public health measures which are recommended are based on the science above and designed to reduce spread. For example – wearing masks reduces the amount of virus released by a person (dose) and the distance it can spread (intensity). Physical distancing i.e. keeping 1-2 metres apart reduces exposure.”