Heard on Morning Edition
Nell Greenfieldboyce March 4, 2020
Scientists who use math and computers to stimulate the course of epidemics are taking on the new coronavirus to try to predict how this global outbreak might evolve and how best to tackle it.
But some say more could be done to take advantage of these modeling tools and the researchers’ findings.
“It is sort of an ad hoc, volunteer effort, and I think that’s something that we could improve upon,” says Caitlin Rivers, an infectious diseases modeler with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
In her view, “modeling plays a really important role in understanding how an outbreak is unfolding, where it might be going, and what we should be thinking through.”
But only a small number of the modelers of epidemics work for the federal government, she says. Most are in academia, and they don’t have formal relationships with officials who have to make key public health decisions.
Still, they are highly motivated to put their skills to use for the public good. They got to work almost as soon as the first reports of a new virus in China emerged in late December.
They’ve made similar efforts for past outbreaks, such as Ebola and Zika. But this time around felt different, people in the field say.
“I’ve never seen the modeling community so galvanized, you know–around this outbreak, and willing to share and collaborate,” says Cecile Viboud, a scientist at the Fogarty International Center, based at the National Institutes of Health.
And research teams have been rapidly churning out insights. By mid-January, one group had circulated an analysis listing the top 15 cities at risk of the virus spreading, based on airplane flights and travel data.