Guided by the science – interview with No 10’s Infection guru

Owl hopes that by now everyone realises that, although in the absence of hard data, modelling is the best science tool to use, models have to be used carefully. Small changes to the variables (assumptions) can produce results in, say, mortality projections, which are an order of magnitude different.

Although Professor Neil Ferguson is the man we can credit for pursuading the government to make the screeching U-turn a couple of weeks ago. This passage from this interview with him by the Science Editor of the Times, worries Owl:

“Yet for other scientists the big problem with Ferguson’s model is that they cannot tell how it works. It consists of several thousand lines of dense computer code, with no description of which bits of code do what. Ferguson agreed this is a problem.

“For me the code is not a mess, but it’s all in my head, completely undocumented. Nobody would be able to use it . . . and I don’t have the bandwidth to support individual users.”

No 10’s infection guru recruits game developers to build coronavirus pandemic model

Jonathan Leake, Science Editor www.thetimes.co.uk 

The computer modellers whose predictions about the pandemic prompted the national lockdown are working with gamers to release a simulation website.

Professor Neil Ferguson, who leads the team at Imperial College London, is working with John Carmack, the lead programmer of Doom, Wolfenstein and Quake, to create Covid-sim, which could go public as early as this week.

“We’ve been working with Microsoft very intensely,” said Ferguson. “The aim is to produce a website where the public or governments or public health agencies can ask about the state of the epidemic in their country and see the impact of different interventions.”

Ferguson leads a team of mathematical modellers at Imperial — about six of whom have the coronavirus, including him. Their projections of how the pandemic will unfold have dominated government policy-making.

This is a marked change to previous epidemics where ministers have called in teams of modellers from rival universities who compete to work out the best responses.

It was team Ferguson’s research paper of March 16 that prompted the lockdown, warning that without it more than 500,000 people could die. It also projected that a full lockdown of the kind now in force could reduce that to less than 20,000.

This weekend the death toll surged to more than 1,000 — and about 14,000 confirmed “active” cases.

Ferguson has faced a number of challenges to his modelling, most recently from Sunetra Gupta, a former close colleague at Oxford, who released research last week suggesting the virus may have infected up to half of Britons — and that less than one in a thousand may be at risk of serious illness.

Ferguson describes Gupta as a “good friend” but dismisses such ideas as “having no supporting data”. He also said suggestions that many victims would have died anyway because of age or other health conditions make no difference to the key findings.

“This is by far the most serious public health threat I’ve worked on in my career. Even if you just look at the mortality, even in younger age groups, it’s way in excess of seasonal influenza.”

Yet for other scientists the big problem with Ferguson’s model is that they cannot tell how it works. It consists of several thousand lines of dense computer code, with no description of which bits of code do what. Ferguson agreed this is a problem.

“For me the code is not a mess, but it’s all in my head, completely undocumented. Nobody would be able to use it . . . and I don’t have the bandwidth to support individual users.” He plans to put that right by working with Carmack and others to publish the entire program as an interactive website.

What is increasingly concerning Ferguson and his colleagues is working out how the UK could lift the lockdown without the virus resurging.

Two clear strategies have emerged. In the short term, testing will be key. “I think we need a shift in balance from relying completely on social distancing to identifying cases much faster. That means even if I have a mild cold, I can literally test myself at home or drive through a testing station and have a result in 24 hours. This will also allow very rapid contact tracing [to suppress outbreaks],” he said.

Another idea is to lift only parts of the lockdown: “For example, not everybody goes back to the workplace at once.” In the long term, however, the strategy must be to develop a vaccine.

One of Ferguson’s more optimistic results is that the proportion of people for whom the disease is trivial could be as high as 30-50%.

He is increasingly hopeful that the outbreak can be contained. Last week he and his colleagues published new research showing that if unchecked it would infect almost everyone in the world, killing about 40 million people in a year. But with prompt health measures just over a million would die.

Footnote from Owl. Don’t dismiss the return of the “Herd Immunity” strategy once the Prime Minister believes himself to be immune.