U.S.-Iran Scientific Collaboration Explores Patterns in the Spread of COVID-19

In early March, researchers in Iran (Shahid Beheshti University of Medical Sciences and Shiraz University of Medical Sciences) and the U.S. (Institute of Human Virology, a Global Virus Network Center of Excellence, and University of Maryland College Park) collaborated to issue a scientific paper examining seasonal patterns in the spread of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). The paper reflects a global scramble among the scientific and medical community to understand and treat COVID-19. Specifically, the researchers consider whether there is a link between temperature and the spread and environmental survival of COVID-19. Examining climate data, the team found that epicenters of the outbreak all have similar climates with an average temperature of 5-11°C, combined with low specific (3-6 g/kg) and absolute humidity (4-7 g/m 3 ). The group found that COVID-19 has spread in a consistent east and west pattern, with virus epicenters situated along the 30-50° N” zone (fig. 1). Based on the distribution of community outbreaks, the researchers suggest that using weather modeling, “it may be possible to predict the regions most likely to be at higher risk of significant community spread of COVID- 19 in the upcoming weeks, allowing for concentration of public health efforts on surveillance and containment.”

Source: “Temperature, Humidity and Latitude Analysis to Predict Potential Spread and Seasonality for COVID-19”

Figure 1. World temperature map November 2018-March 2019. Color gradient indicates 2- meter temperatures in degrees Celsius. Black circles represent countries with significant community transmission (> 10 deaths as of March 10, 2020). Image from Climate Reanalyzer (https://ClimateReanalyzer.org), Climate Change Institute, University of Maine, USA.

It will take many months for the global medical and scientific response to COVID-19 to finalize, and this paper will become one of hundreds attempting to shed light on how the virus spreads. The collaborative nature of the paper is a triumph for scientific exchange between the U.S. and Iran. This type of cooperation is permissible under U.S. sanctions because the exchange or importation of information and informational material from Iran is exempt from sanctions, and exemptions allow a broad range of academic publications. Nevertheless, Iranian researchers also have faced many barriers to conducting their research as a result of U.S. sanctions. For example, the U.S. National Institutes of Health had funded researchers at the Tehran University of Medical Sciences and at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City to study cardiovascular disease patterns. However, the partnership was cut short when Mount Sinai was unable to transfer the grants to the team in Iran.

The rapid spread of COVID-19 is a testament to global interconnectivity. As it continues to plague the global community, papers such as this one remind us of the importance of cooperation and collective efforts in addressing global crises.

By Nikki Vafai