Two American professors have just published a paper documenting their grave concerns about current pandemic modelling, claiming that it doesn’t factor in what will happen after the current extreme social distancing measures have been lifted. Their own modelling indicates that after the current restrictions are lifted, world-wide infections and deaths from COVID-19 will skyrocket due to the fact that the virus will still be in existence and a large proportion of the population will have no immunity to it.
Wesley Pegden, Associate
Professor of Mathematics at Carnegie Mellon University, and Maria Chikina,
Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology at the University of Pittsburgh, have
called for greater “honesty in pandemic modelling” which they believe currently
focuses almost exclusively on the flattening of the curve DURING social
distancing restrictions, and does not indicate what will happen after the
restrictions are lifted. Their paper acknowledges the value of current social
distancing measures in temporarily slowing infection rates but warn that these
temporary containing measures are merely postponing the spike in infections and
deaths that will inevitably take place until the world reaches the point where
herd immunity and the eventual production of a vaccine become a reality.
While the professors
acknowledge that the current containment measures allow us to make improvements in hospital facilities and
medical treatments “over a limited time-frame”, their modelling
indicates that “most of the
impact of the epidemic would occur outside of that time-frame”. This is
because the current containment measures can’t be continued indefinitely. They
state that “as long as a large majority of the population remains
uninfected, lifting containment measures will lead to an epidemic almost as
large as would happen without having mitigations in place at all.”
Graphs and data published in the
professors’ joint paper indicate very little difference in the eventual number
of deaths from COVID-19 irrespective of whether severe mitigations are
implemented or not. “With no mitigations we see nearly 500,000 deaths
relatively quickly. With mitigations which let up between 6 months and a year
we still see nearly 500,000 deaths, just later.”
Their modelling is extremely
sobering. They summarise by saying: “Unfortunately, [the current] extreme
mitigation efforts which eventually end will reduce the number of deaths only
by 1% or so. As the mitigation efforts let up, we will see a full-scale
epidemic, since almost none of the population has developed immunity to the
virus.” In Australia, the New South Wales government has just announced
that they are only planning to keep the current severe lockdown in place for
another 90 days. Even if this is eventually extended by a further 90 days, it
appears that these extreme containment measures will only be delaying the
Professors Pegden and Chikina
are not arguing that the current containment measures are useless, as they will
allow the world time to improve hospital capacities and streamline treatments,
but they point out that a mass-produced and readily available vaccine is
realistically still 18 months away and the world’s population simply can’t lock
themselves away in their homes for that long. We can only flatten the curve for
so long before we are forced to resume life, at which point the pandemic will
accelerate exponentially. The professors are not trying to be doomsayers: they
are simply asking for the publication of realistic long-term pandemic modelling
in the interests of honesty and transparency.
How do we respond to this? It appears that we are in for a
long, dark journey with this pandemic unless a vaccine can be successfully
developed and mass-produced in a miraculously short time. Assuming that no
vaccine will be forthcoming for at least another 12 months, we must face the
fact that things will almost certainly get much worse before they get better.
Having said this, we mustn’t
get this current crisis out of perspective. Each year, between 250,000 and
500,000 die of influenza. This is not to say that COVID-19 is just like the
flu, but if Pegden and Chikina’s modelling turns out to be accurate, its impact
may end up being similar.
As a Christian, I face this
approaching storm with great peace and confidence. God promises to comfort and
strengthen his people through even the worst of times. “Even though I walk through
the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me.”
(Psalm 23:4). In other words, even if I become infected, I know that God
will be with me. And should the worst happen and I leave this world earlier
than I had anticipated, it will turn out to be not the worst at all – but the
very best! For, as that same Psalm says, “…and I will dwell in the house
of the Lord forever.” (Psalm 23:6). Please understand, I’m not trivialising
this pandemic and the suffering that it is causing, but the presence of God in
my life and his promise that death is not the end enable me to face anything
that the world can dish up with peace and confidence.
What about you?
Professors Pegden and Chikina’s paper can be viewed here.
Kevin Simington (B.Th. Dip. Min.) is a theologian, apologist and
social commentator. He spent 31 years in Christian ministry as a
church pastor and a Christian educator. He is the author of Finding God When He Seems to be Hiding; No More Monkey Business: Evolution in Crisis; and Making Sense of the Bible. He has also written a best-selling series of science fiction books.