Whose Coronavirus Projections Should We Believe?

A physicist friend who has been pondering the coronavirus numbers emails to share his frustration:

Knowing that the Gaussian has a peak doesn’t tell you when it happens or how big it is. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find out how variable coronoviruses are but not successfully. So it isn’t clear if the flu model, evolving toward a milder strain, is applicable.

I fucking hate biology. In physics, if you know the past, you can predict the future. There are well formulated, deterministic laws (even quantum laws). Everything in biology is contingent. In retrospect, you can see what caused what, but natural selection is not predictive. It depends on the vagaries of both mutation and predation. Unquantifiable quantities make a physicist scream “Yarbles!”

Quite so. And I happened to run into a great example of this today. As you know, researchers at Imperial College recently released a report with projections about the spread of coronavirus in Britain and the US. Today, the New York Times wrote about one from Columbia University. Here are the most relevant charts:

These are not directly comparable. However, the Times chart is pretty easy to convert to total cases (about 20 million), and from there to total deaths. Using the current consensus estimate of 1 percent for the case fatality rate, the total number of deaths comes to 200,000 by the end of summer in the absence of control measures (red line). The Imperial College chart directly projects 2.2 million deaths by the end of summer in the absence of control measures.

Obviously we are putting in place control measures, so these are not real-life projections. My reason for showing them is that they’re the easiest to compare and they aren’t even in the same ballpark. They’re more than 10x apart. It’s the difference between only 6 percent of the country becoming infected vs. two-thirds or more becoming infected.¹

Unless I did my sums wrong—always a possibility—this leaves us lay folks with nothing to do but shake our heads. Who do we believe?

¹This is the core reason that the Imperial College study has such a high death estimate. Their model projects that 82 percent of the country will eventually be infected, which is a higher projection than most other studies I’ve seen.

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

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Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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