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Disease modelers gaze into their computers to see the future of Covid-19, and it isn’t good

Disease modelers gaze into their computers to see the future of Covid-19, and it isn’t good

COVID-19
SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.COURTESY NIAID-RML

At least 550,000 cases. Maybe 4.4 million. Or something in between.

Like weather forecasters, researchers who use mathematical equations to project how bad a disease outbreak might become are used to uncertainties and incomplete data, and Covid-19, the disease caused by the new-to-humans coronavirus that began circulating in Wuhan, China, late last year, has those everywhere you look. That can make the mathematical models of outbreaks, with their wide range of forecasts, seem like guesswork gussied up with differential equations; the eightfold difference in projected Covid-19 cases in Wuhan, calculatedby a team from the U.S. and Canada, isn’t unusual for the early weeks of an outbreak of a never-before-seen illness.

But infectious-disease models have been approximating reality better and better in recent years, thanks to a better understanding of everything from how germs behave to how much time people spend on buses.

“Year by year there have been improvements in forecasting models and the way they are combined to provide forecasts,” said physicist Alessandro Vespignani of Northeastern University, a leading infectious-disease modeler.Related: 

Experts envision two scenarios if the new coronavirus isn’t contained

That’s not to say there’s not room for improvement. The key variables of most models are mostly the same ones epidemiologists have used for decades to predict the course of outbreaks. But with greater computer power now at their disposal, modelers are incorporating more fine-grained data to better reflect the reality of how people live their lives and interact in the modern world — from commuting to work to jetting around the world. These more detailed models can take weeks to spit out their conclusions, but they can better inform public health officials on the likely impact of disease-control measures.

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