In Depth

Coronavirus: the best-case scenarios - and the worst

Epidemiology models ‘aren’t crystal balls’ but they are shaping government actions

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the world in ways that were unimaginable just a few months ago – and has made it difficult to predict what the world will look like in a few months’ time.

Scientists, economists and politicians have been busy trying to map out the future in order to make the best decisions in the present, leading to several so-called best-case and worst-case scenarios for how the outbreak will pan out.

The epidemiologists

Experts in disease patterns have offered a number of different outlooks, the most famous of which was a report published on 16 March by a team of epidemiologists at Imperial College, London, led by Professor Neil Ferguson.

It warned that, unchecked, the new coronavirus could kill up to 510,000 people in the UK. However, Professor Azra Ghani, a member of the Imperial team, said that strictly observed measures, such as social distancing across the country and household quarantine for suspected cases, could bring this down to around 20,000. The official government death toll currently stands at just over 12,000.

The report “sent a shockwave through the system”, prompting Boris Johnson to announce the country’s lockdown, reports the Financial Times.

However, Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, warns that the models put forward by epidemiologists “aren’t crystal balls”.

Writing in The Atlantic, she says that epidemics are “especially sensitive to initial inputs and timing, and because epidemics grow exponentially”, but epidemiology still offers something important: “agency to identify and calibrate our actions with the goal of shaping our future”.

The way out

The FT notes that debates around the validity of such models are resurfacing as the government contemplates lockdown exit strategies.

In an ideal scenario, an effective vaccine or treatment would be made available quickly. However, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, has said a mass vaccine is likely to take around 12 to 18 months to produce.

Testing and contact tracing could also play an important role in lifting the lockdown, but this will require “a commitment to ramp up testing to levels where such a strategy is feasible”, notes the FT. Raising NHS capacity, with new intensive care units, for example, could also be key to returning to normality.

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When infection offers hope

David Wallace-Wells at New York Magazine says the best-case scenario for the new coronavirus is that it is way more infectious than we think.

While each death is “a tragedy and a horror”, he says, it is “also a numerator”.

“The denominator is made up of how many people out there contracted the disease. And the fraction tells you, in theory, roughly how bad the outlook will be when the disease has finally passed through the entire population (which, barring the arrival of a vaccine, may take longer than the achieving of ‘herd immunity’, which is our clearest path back to ‘normal’ life),” says Wallace-Wells.

Indeed, another study by a group of academics at Oxford University appeared to contradict the Imperial report, suggesting that the coronavirus had already infected a larger proportion of the UK population without leading to a substantial number of deaths.

This idea of natural immunity will also depend on whether it is possible to test positive again for Covid-19 after apparently recovering from the disease – something scientists are racing to find out. The Times notes that South Korea reported 124 “relapsed” cases of Covid-19 on Tuesday, with doctors “urgently investigating whether mutations in the virus can prevent patients from acquiring an immunity”.

The world economy

Like scientists, economists are also trying to predict what effect the virus will have on the world.

Yesterday, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned that even in its best-case scenario, the world is likely to lose a cumulative $9trn in output over two years – greater than the combined gross domestic product of Germany and Japan, reports Reuters.

“It is very likely that this year the global economy will experience its worst recession since the Great Depression, surpassing that seen during the global financial crisis a decade ago,” the IMF said in its report. “The Great Lockdown, as one might call it, is projected to shrink global growth dramatically.”

Meanwhile, in the UK, the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast an unprecedented 35% drop in output in the second quarter from the first.

“These forecasts may still turn out to be too optimistic. A longer-lasting lockdown or a second wave of infections would plunge the global economy into an even deeper contraction,” says the FT.

The newspaper concludes: “The best policy for the world economy, as well as for humanity, would be to get health policies right and make the recession as shallow as possible.”

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