Mathematics of life and death: How disease models shape national shutdowns and other pandemic policies
Source: Science Magazine
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.
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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 16 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 among the groups least at risk of severe illness 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 by the end of the 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 has suddenly become very visible how much the response to infectious diseases is based on models,” Wallinga says. For the modelers, “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 yesterday.