Thousands of lives have been saved in China since the coronavirus outbreak started, claim scientists, saying lockdowns have dramatically improved air quality.
Across the globe countries are implemented measures to restrict public interactions including closing pubs, cancelling events and encouraging home working.
Satellite images from the European Space Agency and NASA show a dramatic reduction in the amount of harmful greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.
Researchers from Stanford University say in places like China the reduction in air pollution has led to fewer premature deaths from breathing toxic air.
The improved air quality around the world isn’t likely to remain long term though, as scientists warn things will likely ‘return to normal levels’ when industry resumes.
Satellite images from the European Space Agency and NASA show a dramatic reduction in the amount of harmful greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. The top image from January shows high levels of NO2 over northern Italy. By March (bottom) that had almost disappeared
To combat the rapidly spreading virus countries put areas and later the whole country on lockdown resulting in limited travel and industrial activity.
Limiting travel has led to a reduction in vehicle emissions and cutting the amount of industrial activity has led to a drop in the number of harmful particles put in the air.
Satellite observations indicated steep falls in nitrogen dioxide emissions in the wake of strict lockdowns in Italy and China, the two worst affected countries so far
Environmental resource economist Marshall Burke says there is a proven link between poor air quality and premature deaths linked to breathing that air.
‘With this in mind’, he said, ‘a natural – if admittedly strange – question is whether the lives saved from this reduction in pollution caused by economic disruption from COVID-19 exceeds the death toll from the virus itself.’
‘Even under very conservative assumptions, I think the answer is a clear ‘yes’.’
At just two months of reduction in pollution levels he says it likely saved the lives of 4,000 children under five and 73,000 adults over 70 in China alone.
‘That’s significantly more than the current global death toll from the virus itself.’
A tale of two cities – In November 2018 Beijing was surrounded by a haze that obscured buildings due to high levels of toxic particulates in the air. In March 2016 skies are clearer
He said the average person loses about three years of their life due to air pollution – similar to the impact of tobacco smoking and higher than Malaria.
Cutting pollution levels longer term will also help reduce the number of deaths in any future pandemic, according to Sara De Matteis from Cagliari University, Italy.
‘Patients with chronic lung and heart conditions caused or worsened by long-term exposure to air pollution are less able to fight off lung infections and more likely to die. This is likely also the case for Covid-19,’ she told the Guardian.
‘By lowering air pollution levels we can help the most vulnerable in their fight against this and any possible future pandemics.’
Burke said it was incorrect and foolhardy to suggest that pandemics are ‘good for health’ and that isn’t what he is saying.
He said: ‘The calculation is perhaps a useful reminder of the often-hidden health consequences of the status quo, ie, the substantial costs that our current way of doing things exacts on our health and livelihoods.’
Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air in Helsinki, Finland said nitrogen dioxide levels were down by 35 per cent over China during the shutdown compared to the same period in 2019.
‘Most factories have been closed or running at low capacity, either because of restrictions on operation or because employees haven’t been able to return from holidays, or because of lack of demand,’ Myllyvirta told Business Insider.
‘If the government holds onto the GDP growth target for the year, that could mean launching a massive construction program to prop up GDP,’ he said. ‘This is what happened after the global financial crisis in 2009.’
Maria Castellina, spokesperson for Friends of the Earth, said coronavirus is a reminder that we are ‘all part of one global community’ and that we ‘need to cooperate to solve global problems’.
‘But this is a time that can also bring out in the best in us: people helping older neighbours, anyone self-isolating to protect others, and rapidly developing technology showing that many of us can work and live in completely different ways.
‘It is this attitude of kindness, resilience and ability to adapt, that we should use to inform other global crises.
‘Exceptional circumstances like these remind us just how important our health is, yet 4.2 million premature deaths globally are linked to air pollution.
‘Imagine what we could do if we didn’t return completely to business-as-usual but kept people’s health and wellbeing front and centre in decision-making.’
Air quality improvements are likely to be reversed when China ramps up to its full industrial capacity at the end of the virus crisis
Unfortunately this improved air quality isn’t expected to last – with scientists predicting a return to normal levels as soon as the crisis is over.
‘When the Chinese economy does recover, they are likely to see an increase in emissions in the short term to sort of make up for lost time, in terms of production,’ climate scientist Zeke Hausfather told Wired.
‘Broadly speaking, the only real times we’ve seen large emission reductions globally in the past few decades is during major recessions,’ says Hausfather.
‘But even then, the effects are often smaller than you think. It generally doesn’t lead to any sort of systematic change.’
Air quality researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Fei Liu said: ‘This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event.’
Dramatic footage from the ESA Copernicus satellite shared on Friday showed a ‘notable drop’ in air pollution over Italy after the coronavirus lockdown.
ESA’s Claus Zehner, Sentinel-5P mission manager, said, ‘The decline in nitrogen dioxide emissions over the Po Valley in northern Italy is particularly evident.
‘Although there could be slight variations in the data due to cloud cover and changing weather, we are very confident that the reduction in emissions that we can see, coincides with the lockdown in Italy causing less traffic and industrial activities.’
This came after the country closed bars, pubs, restaurants and other venues in a bid to stop people spreading the virus – resulting in a reduction in traffic, air and industrial pollution.
This map shows the UK air pollution levels today as recorded by Defra. The light green areas have ‘very low’ air pollution and the darker green areas are ‘low’ air pollution. The UK often has low air pollution levels and these are expected to move towards showing very low as a result of isolations and reduced activity
The UK also saw a drop in air pollution levels, although it is too soon into the isolation process to get exact figures for the whole country, according to experts.
Readings for nitrogen dioxide – a harmful greenhouse gas – across London were lower on Sunday than on Monday for the first time.
The Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs reported that air pollution levels were ‘low’ across the country today and don’t expect that to change.
On Monday Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged people to stay home and avoid all but essential travel and contact with other people.
According to EU air quality monitoring website AirQualityNow.eu – London saw a drop from 96 on Sunday to just 20 on Monday. The figure for Monday would normally be higher than the weekend rate.
These NASA maps shows the concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) over China between 01 January 2020 (left) and 25 February 2020 (right)
The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) observed a decrease of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) for February relative to the previous three years of between 20 and 30 per cent, Copernicus said in a statement.
PM2.5 is one of the most important air pollutants regarding health impacts according to the World Health Organization.
Nitrogen dioxide is a noxious gas which is released during fuel combustion and emitted by cars, power plants and industrial facilities.
It forms when fossil fuels such as coal, gas or diesel are burned at high temperatures and can cause a range of harmful effects on the lungs including increased inflammation of the airways and a greater risk of asthma attacks.
A global drop in the number of flights is also having an impact on air pollution.
‘Based economic growth forecasts the impact of the coronavirus could significantly reduce global CO2 emissions,’ said Professor Ian Colbeck, of the University of Essex.
‘Figures from China suggest a 25 per cent reduction in energy use and emissions.
‘Air travel emissions are a significant contributor to climate change so expect this figure to drop as more and more flights are cancelled.’
A man wearing a facemask as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus walks at the Summer Palace in Beijing on March 17, 2020. China put cities on complete lockdown which led to a reduction in air pollution levels
At an individual level the amount of road traffic could reduce significantly, with companies allowing staff to continue to work from home after the crisis.
‘It’s quite possible that once things revert back to pre-virus conditions that companies and their staff may have seen the benefits of working from home and so the actual number of commuters may reduce,’ said Professor Colbeck.
Glen Peters, Research Director for the Centre for International Climate Environment Research agrees, saying it could lead to major changes.
‘Based on new projections for economic growth in 2020, we suggest the impact of the coronavirus might significantly curb global emissions,’ he said in an article for the academic website The Conversation.
The biggest barrier to long term change will be the rapidly dropping price of oil.
The International Energy Agency had already predicted oil use would drop in 2020, and this was before an oil price war emerged between Saudi Arabia and Russia.
Burke said the indirect impacts of the virus are probably significantly higher than we know and any benefits from air pollution would be dominated by the direct and indirect costs of the virus.
He told the Guardian this includes ‘the health effects of lost income and the morbidity/mortality costs of non-Covid health problems going untreated.’
Sascha Marschang, the acting secretary general of the European Public Health Alliance, told the Guardian big decisions were needed after the crisis ends.
‘Policymakers should speed up measures to get dirty vehicles off our roads.
‘Science tells us that epidemics like Covid-19 will occur with increasing frequency. So cleaning up the streets is a basic investment for a healthier future.’
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE CORONAVIRUS?
What is the coronavirus?
A coronavirus is a type of virus which can cause illness in animals and people. Viruses break into cells inside their host and use them to reproduce itself and disrupt the body’s normal functions. Coronaviruses are named after the Latin word ‘corona’, which means crown, because they are encased by a spiked shell which resembles a royal crown.
The coronavirus from Wuhan is one which has never been seen before this outbreak. It has been named SARS-CoV-2 by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. The name stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2.
Experts say the bug, which has killed around one in 50 patients since the outbreak began in December, is a ‘sister’ of the SARS illness which hit China in 2002, so has been named after it.
The disease that the virus causes has been named COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019.
Dr Helena Maier, from the Pirbright Institute, said: ‘Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that infect a wide range of different species including humans, cattle, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats and wild animals.
‘Until this new coronavirus was identified, there were only six different coronaviruses known to infect humans. Four of these cause a mild common cold-type illness, but since 2002 there has been the emergence of two new coronaviruses that can infect humans and result in more severe disease (Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronaviruses).
‘Coronaviruses are known to be able to occasionally jump from one species to another and that is what happened in the case of SARS, MERS and the new coronavirus. The animal origin of the new coronavirus is not yet known.’
The first human cases were publicly reported from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where approximately 11million people live, after medics first started publicly reporting infections on December 31.
By January 8, 59 suspected cases had been reported and seven people were in critical condition. Tests were developed for the new virus and recorded cases started to surge.
The first person died that week and, by January 16, two were dead and 41 cases were confirmed. The next day, scientists predicted that 1,700 people had become infected, possibly up to 7,000.
Where does the virus come from?
According to scientists, the virus almost certainly came from bats. Coronaviruses in general tend to originate in animals – the similar SARS and MERS viruses are believed to have originated in civet cats and camels, respectively.
The first cases of COVID-19 came from people visiting or working in a live animal market in Wuhan, which has since been closed down for investigation.
Although the market is officially a seafood market, other dead and living animals were being sold there, including wolf cubs, salamanders, snakes, peacocks, porcupines and camel meat.
A study by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, published in February 2020 in the scientific journal Nature, found that the genetic make-up virus samples found in patients in China is 96 per cent identical to a coronavirus they found in bats.
However, there were not many bats at the market so scientists say it was likely there was an animal which acted as a middle-man, contracting it from a bat before then transmitting it to a human. It has not yet been confirmed what type of animal this was.
Dr Michael Skinner, a virologist at Imperial College London, was not involved with the research but said: ‘The discovery definitely places the origin of nCoV in bats in China.
‘We still do not know whether another species served as an intermediate host to amplify the virus, and possibly even to bring it to the market, nor what species that host might have been.’
So far the fatalities are quite low. Why are health experts so worried about it?
Experts say the international community is concerned about the virus because so little is known about it and it appears to be spreading quickly.
It is similar to SARS, which infected 8,000 people and killed nearly 800 in an outbreak in Asia in 2003, in that it is a type of coronavirus which infects humans’ lungs. It is less deadly than SARS, however, which killed around one in 10 people, compared to approximately one in 50 for COVID-19.
Another reason for concern is that nobody has any immunity to the virus because they’ve never encountered it before. This means it may be able to cause more damage than viruses we come across often, like the flu or common cold.
Speaking at a briefing in January, Oxford University professor, Dr Peter Horby, said: ‘Novel viruses can spread much faster through the population than viruses which circulate all the time because we have no immunity to them.
‘Most seasonal flu viruses have a case fatality rate of less than one in 1,000 people. Here we’re talking about a virus where we don’t understand fully the severity spectrum but it’s possible the case fatality rate could be as high as two per cent.’
If the death rate is truly two per cent, that means two out of every 100 patients who get it will die.
‘My feeling is it’s lower,’ Dr Horby added. ‘We’re probably missing this iceberg of milder cases. But that’s the current circumstance we’re in.
‘Two per cent case fatality rate is comparable to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 so it is a significant concern globally.’
How does the virus spread?
The illness can spread between people just through coughs and sneezes, making it an extremely contagious infection. And it may also spread even before someone has symptoms.
It is believed to travel in the saliva and even through water in the eyes, therefore close contact, kissing, and sharing cutlery or utensils are all risky. It can also live on surfaces, such as plastic and steel, for up to 72 hours, meaning people can catch it by touching contaminated surfaces.
Originally, people were thought to be catching it from a live animal market in Wuhan city. But cases soon began to emerge in people who had never been there, which forced medics to realise it was spreading from person to person.
What does the virus do to you? What are the symptoms?
Once someone has caught the COVID-19 virus it may take between two and 14 days, or even longer, for them to show any symptoms – but they may still be contagious during this time.
If and when they do become ill, typical signs include a runny nose, a cough, sore throat and a fever (high temperature). The vast majority of patients will recover from these without any issues, and many will need no medical help at all.
In a small group of patients, who seem mainly to be the elderly or those with long-term illnesses, it can lead to pneumonia. Pneumonia is an infection in which the insides of the lungs swell up and fill with fluid. It makes it increasingly difficult to breathe and, if left untreated, can be fatal and suffocate people.
Figures are showing that young children do not seem to be particularly badly affected by the virus, which they say is peculiar considering their susceptibility to flu, but it is not clear why.
What have genetic tests revealed about the virus?
Scientists in China have recorded the genetic sequences of around 19 strains of the virus and released them to experts working around the world.
This allows others to study them, develop tests and potentially look into treating the illness they cause.
Examinations have revealed the coronavirus did not change much – changing is known as mutating – much during the early stages of its spread.
However, the director-general of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, said the virus was mutating and adapting as it spread through people.
This means efforts to study the virus and to potentially control it may be made extra difficult because the virus might look different every time scientists analyse it.
More study may be able to reveal whether the virus first infected a small number of people then change and spread from them, or whether there were various versions of the virus coming from animals which have developed separately.
How dangerous is the virus?
The virus has a death rate of around two per cent. This is a similar death rate to the Spanish Flu outbreak which, in 1918, went on to kill around 50million people.
Experts have been conflicted since the beginning of the outbreak about whether the true number of people who are infected is significantly higher than the official numbers of recorded cases. Some people are expected to have such mild symptoms that they never even realise they are ill unless they’re tested, so only the more serious cases get discovered, making the death toll seem higher than it really is.
However, an investigation into government surveillance in China said it had found no reason to believe this was true.
Dr Bruce Aylward, a World Health Organization official who went on a mission to China, said there was no evidence that figures were only showing the tip of the iceberg, and said recording appeared to be accurate, Stat News reported.
Can the virus be cured?
The COVID-19 virus cannot be cured and it is proving difficult to contain.
Antibiotics do not work against viruses, so they are out of the question. Antiviral drugs can work, but the process of understanding a virus then developing and producing drugs to treat it would take years and huge amounts of money.
No vaccine exists for the coronavirus yet and it’s not likely one will be developed in time to be of any use in this outbreak, for similar reasons to the above.
The National Institutes of Health in the US, and Baylor University in Waco, Texas, say they are working on a vaccine based on what they know about coronaviruses in general, using information from the SARS outbreak. But this may take a year or more to develop, according to Pharmaceutical Technology.
Currently, governments and health authorities are working to contain the virus and to care for patients who are sick and stop them infecting other people.
People who catch the illness are being quarantined in hospitals, where their symptoms can be treated and they will be away from the uninfected public.
And airports around the world are putting in place screening measures such as having doctors on-site, taking people’s temperatures to check for fevers and using thermal screening to spot those who might be ill (infection causes a raised temperature).
However, it can take weeks for symptoms to appear, so there is only a small likelihood that patients will be spotted up in an airport.
Is this outbreak an epidemic or a pandemic?
The outbreak was declared a pandemic on March 11. A pandemic is defined by the World Health Organization as the ‘worldwide spread of a new disease’.
Previously, the UN agency said most cases outside of Hubei had been ‘spillover’ from the epicentre, so the disease wasn’t actually spreading actively around the world.