“Covid-19 pandemic never exponential” – Nobel prize-winning scientist

Professor Michael Levitt is not an epidemiologist. He is Professor of Structural Biology at the Stanford School of Medicine, and winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for “the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems.”,

He predicted with remarkable accuracy that the epidemic in Hubei province would peak at around 3,250 deaths, based on the fact that in most outbreaks, a similar mathematical pattern is observable regardless of government interventions. Ie after around a two week exponential growth of cases, the rate of increase starts to slow down. The virus will only grow exponentially  when it is undetected and no one is acting to control it, That’s what happened in South Korea when it ripped through a closed-off cult that refused to report the illness.

The  implications of this are profound. The ‘unmitigated’ scenarios modelled by Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College (a theoretical physicist by training). which tilted governments across the world into drastic action, relied on a presumption of continued exponential growth .— Levitt takes specific issue with the Neil Ferguson paper. “In a footnote to a table it said, assuming exponential growth of 15% for six days….His point is that exponential growth hasn’t happened anywhere, even in countries that have not advocated strict lockdown measures. Ie when managed, the curve quickly becomes “sub-exponential”.

The total number of deaths seen  in places as diverse as New York City, the UK, France and Italy, all seem to level out at a very similar fraction of the total population. Levitt believes that in addition to lockdowns and social distancing, there are other important  factors at work, such as some degree of prior immunity and large numbers of asymptomatic cases.

The indiscriminate lockdown measures as “a huge mistake,” and Levitt advocates a “smart lockdown” policy, focused on more effective measures, focused on protecting elderly people. This may  actually be part of the policy to be announced by Boris Johnson on Sunday 10th May to partially lift lockdown measures, by relaxing restrictions on well over half of the population, and extending protection for those over 70 and vulnerable people.

The strategy from researchers at Edinburgh University, known as “segmenting and shielding”, is intended to  ease the lockdown on those least at risk from the virus. The majority of the population ( approx. 85%) would be given more freedom to move around and return to work, while protecting the  approximate 15%  of the population (the 8.7 million over 70’s) and those with underlying health problems to prevent a surge of new infections from overwhelming the NHS. For source click. On a personal note, I am not happy about this potential policy, but it makes obvious sense for the population as a whole as a way forward.

Levitt thinks the policy of herd immunity was the right policy. “I think the UK was on exactly the right track before they were fed wrong numbers, and I believe they made a huge mistake.”

“I see the standout winners as Germany and Sweden. They didn’t practise too much lockdown and they got enough people sick to get some herd immunity. I see the standout losers as countries like Austria, Australia and Israel that have had very strict lockdown but didn’t have many cases. They have damaged their economies, caused massive social damage, damaged the educational year of their children, but not obtained any herd immunity”.“There is no doubt in my mind, that when we come to look back on this, the damage done by lockdown will exceed any saving of lives by a huge factor”.

Levitt is philosophical about the future and sees this as a generational mistake:”I think this is another foul-up on the part of the baby boomers. I am a real baby boomer — I was born in 1947, I am almost 73 years old — but I think we’ve really screwed up. We’ve caused pollution, we’ve allowed the world’s population to increase threefold in my lifetime, we’ve caused the problems of global warming and now we’ve left your generation with a real mess in order to save a relatively small number of very old people”. 

Like Professor Levitt, I am a slightly older baby boomer. Whilst I agree with much of what he thinks, the initial UK policy of acquiring herd immunity was not sustainable, not because the policy was wrong, but because the NHS would have been quickly overwhelmed. Based on the original policy, huge physical additional capacity was built very quickly in the form of the seven Nightingale field hospitals.

However, there would have been insufficient trained personnel to staff them, as there were well over 40,000 nurse vacancies in the NHS before the start of the pandemic crisis. Also, there would have been insufficient PPE for the staff we had, which would have resulted in significant additional deaths of NHS staff and care workers through continued exposure to coronavirus, through viral overload.

The main lesson from this article by Professor Levitt is that coronavirus will always have to be controlled by social distancing and contact tracing measures both now and whenever outbreaks and waves occur in the future. These measures must be immediate rather than the fortnight that Levitt talks about (when exponential spread of coronavirus can occur), although this may not be possible in developing countries.

Click Source for full article.

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