With the coronavirus pandemic causing shockwaves across the globes there is no shortage of fear at the moment.
The truth is nobody truly knows what will happen over the next several weeks and most believe it’s better to be overly cautious than under-prepared.
However, Michael Levitt, who won the 2013 Nobel Prize in chemistry, has a more optimistic view of what may take place if humanity takes bold action.
Initially, Levitt said, every coronavirus patient in China infected on average 2.2 people a day—spelling exponential growth that can only lead to disaster. “But then it started dropping, and the number of new daily infections is now close to zero.” He compared it to interest rates again: “even if the interest rate keeps dropping, you still make money. The sum you invested does not lessen, it just grows more slowly. When discussing diseases, it frightens people a lot because they keep hearing about new cases every day. But the fact that the infection rate is slowing down means the end of the pandemic is near.”
There are several reasons for this, according to Levitt. “In exponential growth models, you assume that new people can be infected every day, because you keep meeting new people. But, if you consider your own social circle, you basically meet the same people every day. You can meet new people on public transportation, for example; but even on the bus, after some time most passengers will either be infected or immune.”
Another reason the infection rate has slowed has to do with the physical distance guidelines. “You don’t hug every person you meet on the street now, and you’ll avoid meeting face to face with someone that has a cold, like we did,” Levitt said. “The more you adhere, the more you can keep infection in check. So, under these circumstances, a carrier will only infect 1.5 people every three days and the rate will keep going down.”
Quarantine makes a difference, according to Levitt, but there are other factors at work. “We know China was under almost complete quarantine, people only left home to do crucial shopping and avoided contact with others. In Wuhan, which had the highest number of infection cases in the Hubei province, everyone had a chance of getting infected, but only 3% caught it,” he explained. “Even on the Diamond Princess (the virus-stricken cruise ship), the infection rate did not top 20%.” Based on these statistics, Levitt said, he concluded that many people are just naturally immune to the virus.
The explosion of cases in Italy is worrying, Levitt said, but he estimates it is a result of a higher percentage of elderly people than in China, France, or Spain. “Furthermore, Italian culture is very warm, and Italians have a very rich social life. For these reasons, it is important to keep people apart and prevent sick people from coming into contact with healthy people.”
China did great work and managed to gain complete control of the virus, Levitt said. “Currently, I am most worried about the U.S. It must isolate as many people as possible to buy time for preparations. Otherwise, it can end up in a situation where 20,000 infected people will descend on the nearest hospital at the same time and the healthcare system will collapse.”
Israel currently does not have enough cases to provide the data needed to make estimates, Levitt said, but from what he can tell, the Ministry of Health is dealing with the pandemic in a correct, positive way. “The more severe the defensive measures taken, the more they will buy time to prepare for needed treatment and develop a vaccine.”
Levitt avoids making global forecasts. In China, he said, the number of new infections will soon reach zero, and South Korea is past the median point and can already see the end. Regarding the rest of the world, it is still hard to tell, he said. “It will end when all those who are sick will only meet people they have already infected. The goal is not to reach the situation the cruise ship experienced.”
The Diamond Princess was the worst case scenario, according to Levitt. “If you compare the ship to a country—we are talking 250,000 people crowded into one square kilometer, which is horribly crowded. It is four times the crowding in Hong Kong. It is as if the entire Isaeli population was crammed into 30 square kilometers.” Furthermore, he said, the ship had a central air conditioning and heating system and a communal dining room. “Those are extremely comfortable conditions for the virus and still, only 20% were infected. It is a lot, but pretty similar to the infection rate of the common flu.”
As with the flu, most of those dying as a result of coronavirus are over 70 years old, Levitt said. “It is a known fact that the flu mostly kills the elderly—around three-quarters of flu mortalities are people over 65.” To put things in proportion: “there are years when flu is raging, like in the U.S. in 2017, when there were three times the regular number of mortalities. And still, we did not panic. That is my message: you need to think of corona like a severe flu. It is four to eight times as strong as a common flu, and yet, most people will remain healthy and humanity will survive.”
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