Without intense government intervention, the novel coronavirus could infect 7 billion people and kill 40 million this year, according to a new report from researchers at the Imperial College of London.
The projections are just that: projections. They are not a concrete guarantee of what will happen.
But the model, according the co-authors, is a call to action: Governments and individuals must take immediate steps like lockdowns and social distancing to stem the impacts of the pandemic.
Without implementing strategies like lockdowns to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, there would have been 7 billion infections and 40 million deaths in 2020 alone, according to a report published Thursday from researchers at the Imperial College of London.
"The world faces a severe and acute public health emergency due to the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic," the authors wrote. "How individual countries respond in the coming weeks will be critical in influencing the trajectory of national epidemics."
The report, according to co-author Charles Whittaker, is meant to project the impact of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. The projections are not an inevitability, he said.
"The results we present in this paper are not predictions of what will [necessarily] happen," Whittaker told BBC NewsHour on Friday morning. "Instead, what we're trying to do is illustrate the magnitude of the problem and the benefits of acting quickly."
The report has not been published in a scientific journal nor peer-reviewed. Nearly four dozen researchers from the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team and the WHO Collaborating Center for Infectious Disease Modeling are co-authors.
They modeled how many infections, deaths, critical cases, and hospital bed shortages there could be based on four different scenarios: no government intervention, some social distancing, enhanced social distancing protecting the elderly, and wide-scale intensive social distancing.
Their models predict that if authorities took steps to shield the elderly and slow viral transmission, 20 million lives could be saved worldwide.
"But we predict that even in this scenario, health systems in all countries will be quickly overwhelmed," the authors wrote.
Those negative effects will likely be most severe in lower income countries, with or without immediate measures, the researchers warn. Without social distancing campaigns, low-income countries will face a "hugely catastrophic" epidemic, according to Whittaker, who told the BBC "these countries need to be supported by higher income countries."
The researchers called for all countries to implement widespread testing, isolation of known cases, and wider social distancing measures. About one-third of the world is currently under some kind of lockdown, but the severities vary and large swaths of the US and some countries still lack official orders.
If such measures are adopted "immediately" and sustained for a long period, the researchers predict 38.7 million lives could be spared worldwide. If those measures are not implemented until the death rate is higher, their model shows 30.7 million lives could be saved.
They concluded: "Given these results, the only approaches that can avert health system failure in the coming months are likely to be the intensive social distancing measures currently being implemented in many of the most affected countries, preferably combined with high levels of testing. These approaches are likely to have the largest impact when implemented early."
Their model puts hard numbers to the phrase "flatten the curve," which public health officials have been using when encouraging people to stay at home and keep their social distance. The goal is to keep healthcare systems from becoming overwhelmed with too many critical cases at one time.
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Mitigating economic and social costs is possible
President Donald Trump has said the United States must open up for business in the coming weeks.
But experts warn that lifting lockdowns and social distancing orders would be a grave mistake, and that flattening the curve could take several more weeks, at least.
Whittaker said that if "governments and supra-national organizations" take concerted steps, "a lot of the economic and societal costs of suppression can be modified."
Other higher income countries have taken similar steps, like Canada, which is giving residents $2,000 a month for four months. This week, the House and Senate passed a $2 trillion stimulus package that will include one-time payments of $1,200 to millions of Americans.
"I view it less as a 'what level of deaths is acceptable'," Whittaker said of the crisis and its solutions. "Given suppression needs to happen if we are to prevent millions of lives being lost gravely, what can we do and how can we support countries in enabling suppression to happen?"
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