Another perspective on Coronavirus – Prof. Michael Levitt

Owing to the serendipity of a contemporary and friend of mine at King’s College London, Andrew Ennis, wishing one of HIS contemporaries in Physics, Michael Levitt, a happy birthday on 9th May, and mentioning me and my Coronavirus modelling attempts in passing, I am benefiting from another perspective on Coronavirus from Michael Levitt.

The difference is that Prof. Michael Levitt is a Nobel laureate in 2013 in computational biosciences…and I’m not! I’m not a Fields Medal winner either (there is no Nobel Prize for Mathematics, the Fields Medal being an equivalently prestigious accolade for mathematicians). Michael is Professor of Structural Biology at the Stanford School of Medicine.

I did win the Drew Medal for Mathematics in my day, but that’s another (lesser) story!

Michael has turned his attention, since the beginning of 2020, to the Coronavirus pandemic, and had kindly sent me a number of references to his work, and to his other recent work in the field.

I had already referred to Michael in an earlier blog post of mine, following a Times report of his amazingly accurate forecast of the limits to the epidemic in China (in which he was taking a particular interest).

Report of Michael Levitt’s forecast for the China outbreak

I felt it would be useful to report on the most recent of the links Michael sent me regarding his work, the interview given to Freddie Sayers of UnHerd at https://unherd.com/thepost/nobel-prize-winning-scientist-the-covid-19-epidemic-was-never-exponential/ reported on May 2nd. I have added some extracts from UnHerd’s coverage of this interview, but it’s better to watch the interview.

Michael’s interview with UnHerd

As UnHerd’s report says, “With a purely statistical perspective, he has been playing close attention to the Covid-19 pandemic since January, when most of us were not even aware of it. He first spoke out in early February, when through analysing the numbers of cases and deaths in Hubei province he predicted with remarkable accuracy that the epidemic in that province would top out at around 3,250 deaths.

“His observation is a simple one: that in outbreak after outbreak of this disease, a similar mathematical pattern is observable regardless of government interventions. After around a two week exponential growth of cases (and, subsequently, deaths) some kind of break kicks in, and growth starts slowing down. The curve quickly becomes ‘sub-exponential’.

UnHerd reports that he takes specific issue with the Neil Ferguson paper, that along with some others, was of huge influence with the UK Government (amongst others) in taking drastic action, moving away from a ‘herd immunity” approach to a lockdown approach to suppress infection transmission.

“In a footnote to a table it said, assuming exponential growth of 15% for six days. Now I had looked at China and had never seen exponential growth that wasn’t decaying rapidly.

“The explanation for this flattening that we are used to is that social distancing and lockdowns have slowed the curve, but he is unconvinced. As he put it to me, in the subsequent examples to China of South Korea, Iran and Italy, ‘the beginning of the epidemics showed a slowing down and it was very hard for me to believe that those three countries could practise social distancing as well as China.’ He believes that both some degree of prior immunity and large numbers of asymptomatic cases are important factors.

“He disagrees with Sir David Spiegelhalter’s calculations that the totem is around one additional year of excess deaths, while (by adjusting to match the effects seen on the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship, and also in Wuhan, China) he calculates that it is more like one month of excess death that is need before the virus peters out.

“He believes the much-discussed R0 is a faulty number, as it is meaningless without the time infectious alongside.” I discussed R0 and its derivation in my article about the SIR model and R0.

Interestingly, Prof Alex Visscher, whose original model I have been adapting for the UK, also calibrated his thinking, in part, by considering the effect of the Coronavirus on the captive, closed community on the Diamond Princess, as I reported in my Model Update on Coronavirus on May 8th.

The UnHerd article finishes with this quote: “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.”

I suppose, as a direct contemporary, that I should apologise too.

There’s a lot more at the UnHerd site, but better to hear it directly from Michael in the video.

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