New Scientist Int 4.04.2020

(C. Jardin) #1
4 April 2020 | New Scientist | 5

YOU will probably have read that there
are going to be X thousand deaths from
coronavirus in the country you live in.
You may also have read that there are
going to be an order of magnitude
more or fewer deaths. You would be
right to be unsure which is correct.
It could be any of them, or none.
President Donald Trump has been
talking about a possible 100,000 to
200,000 coronavirus deaths in the US
if his administration “does well” at
tackling the virus. In the UK, there has
been talk of 20,000 deaths if measures
work and 250,000 without restrictions.
There has been no shortage of other
estimates put forward by people with
little experience of epidemiology, some
of which come in very low indeed.
These calculations, approximations
and guesstimates from expert modelling

studies and back-of-the-envelope
blogging build a confusing picture,
not least because they suggest that it is
possible to assign a numerical value to
covid-19’s future death toll at this point.
We are living through a situation with
few certainties. If someone calculates

that 1 per cent of the global population
is set to die in this pandemic, say, this
could be wrong for at least six reasons.
First, we can’t yet be sure of the
covid-19 fatality rate, or to what extent
this will be affected by local shortages
of ventilators. Second, we don’t know
what proportion of the world population

is likely to catch the infection, with
some estimates varying between about
60 and 80 per cent. Third, we don’t know
to what extent national restrictions,
which vary wildly across the globe, will
prevent or delay infections and deaths.
Added to this, we can’t know yet
whether we can slow the pandemic long
enough to develop drugs and vaccines
that can dramatically cut the number
of covid-19 deaths. And finally, we don’t
even know what kind of immunity – if
any – is conferred by this virus, and
whether it is possible to develop severe
symptoms from a repeat infection.
With all of these unknowns, the
numbers you are hearing about death
tolls, or how long restrictions will be
in place, or how many people will need
intensive care, should be taken not just
with a pinch of salt but with a sack of it. ❚

Numbers with little meaning

Estimates of covid-19’s predicted death toll abound, but are of little use

The leader

“ We can’t know yet whether
we can slow the pandemic
long enough to develop
drugs and vaccines for it”

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