Modeling takes on life and death importance

30 Mar, 2020
Via Science, Martin Enserink and Kai Kupferschmidt write: With COVID-19, modeling takes on life and death importance

Jacco Wallinga's computer simulations are about to face a high-stakes reality check. Wallinga is a mathematician and the chief epidemic modeler at the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), which is advising the Dutch government on what actions, such as closing schools and businesses, will help control the spread of the novel coronavirus in the country.

The Netherlands has so far chosen a softer set of measures than most Western European countries; it was late to close its schools and restaurants and hasn't ordered a full lockdown. In a 17 March speech, Prime Minister Mark Rutte rejected “working endlessly to contain the virus” and “shutting down the country completely.” Instead, he opted for “controlled spread” of the virus while making sure the health system isn't swamped with COVID-19 patients. He called on the public to respect RIVM's expertise on how to thread that needle. Wallinga's models predict that the number of infected people needing hospitalization, his most important metric, will taper off next week. But if the models are wrong, the demand for intensive care beds could outstrip supply, as it has, tragically, in Italy and Spain.

COVID-19 isn't the first infectious disease scientists have modeled—Ebola and Zika are recent examples—but never has so much depended on their work. Entire cities and countries have been locked down based on hastily done forecasts that often haven't been peer reviewed. “It's a huge responsibility,” says epidemiologist Caitlin Rivers of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, who co-authored a report about the future of outbreak modeling in the United States that her center released this week.

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