More from the British on coronavirus

From three days ago: “If the British are right, everything the U.S. is doing about coronavirus is wrong”. If you’re not like my friends on Facebook who get all of their scientific, technical, and medical information from Donald Trump (and then complain that it isn’t accurate), you might be interested in “Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID19 mortality and healthcare demand” from Imperial College. It seems that the UK government policy is to some extent derived from this research.

It is tough to summarize, but the authors say that both “mitigation” and “suppression” are required. Mitigation is the “flatten the curve” idea that we’ve seen. Suppression is Asian-style crush: “the aim is to reduce the reproduction number (the average number of secondary cases each case generates), R, to below 1 and hence to reduce case numbers to low levels or (as for SARS or Ebola) eliminate human-to-human transmission.”

The optimum strategy seems to be to turn suppression on and off depending on how many ICU beds are occupied. The authors expect this fight to last roughly two years. If everything is done perfectly and the baseline transmission (R0, an assumption) is 2.4, deaths in the U.K. will be cut from a baseline of 510,000 (do nothing but sweep up bodies) to around 30,000. The authors are expecting social distancing policies to be in place for about 2/3rds of the time.

Some unwelcome news for a country that takes 100 years to build a subway line and maybe 1,000 years to build high-speed rail:

Perhaps our most significant conclusion is that mitigation [as opposed to mitigation plus suppression] is unlikely to be feasible without emergency surge capacity limits of the UK and US healthcare systems being exceeded many times over. In the most effective mitigation strategy examined, which leads to a single, relatively short epidemic (case isolation, household quarantine and social distancing of the elderly), the surge limits for both general ward and ICU beds would be exceeded by at least 8-fold under the more optimistic scenario for critical care requirements that we examined. In addition, even if all patients were able to be treated, we predict there would still be in the order of 250,000 deaths in GB, and 1.1-1.2 million in the US.

So a country like China that can throw together and deliver emergency hospitals may be able to get away with comparatively lightweight social distancing measures. But for countries that are mostly paralyzed with red tape and therefore that have to “go to war with the hospitals they have”:

We therefore conclude that epidemic suppression is the only viable strategy at the current time. The social and economic effects of the measures which are needed to achieve this policy goal will be profound. Many countries have adopted such measures already, but even those countries at an earlier stage of their epidemic (such as the UK) will need to do so imminently.

Sobering. The only thing that would potentially save us from these shutdowns is a vaccine, say the authors. But other sources are saying that a vaccine probably won’t work, right? The virus evolves so fast that last month’s vaccine won’t help with next month’s infection.

Even more sobering…

we emphasise that [it] is not at all certain that suppression will succeed long term; no public health intervention with such disruptive effects on society has been previously attempted for such a long duration of time. How populations and societies will respond remains unclear.


  • The hospital that the Chinese built in 10 days is 645,000 square feet (Business Insider). How big is that? The Blue Origin rocket factory at Cape Canaveral is 750,000 square feet (Florida Today). (anecdote: A program manager at Blue Origin told our aviation group about making a bet with the general who runs the nearby U.S. Air Force base. A base guard shack had been wiped out by a hurricane. Blue Origin was beginning work on their factory as the Air Force was planning the new guard shack. The Blue Origin guy said he’d get his rocket factory built before the Air Force guy had his new guard shack. 18 months later… the Air Force won, but only by a couple of weeks.)
  • “Flattening the Coronavirus Curve Is Not Enough” (MIT Press), by a University of Toronto professor, who says that we need surge capacity like the Chinese that our military and government will deliver it (after all, we mostly won the Afghanistan and Iraq wars in slightly less than 20 years while spending less than $1 trillion per year on our military, right?): “Building out that capacity requires a new mindset and it requires it quickly. The great news is that we — and by we I mean the generation who were adults in World War II — have done this before. Entire economies were shifted over to military production. This was done by abandoning market processes of resource allocation and moving to a planned economy.”

11 thoughts on “More from the British on coronavirus

  1. Who knows, perhaps this will be the jolt that is needed for the US health care system to get out of the rut it’s been in for 30+ years. Hospitals and Dr’s become overwhelmed and are forced to delegate, become more efficient and cost effective out of necessity. Nurses become deputized to care for patients that doctors cannot, and so on.

    • Darwin would have been proud: America will have both better healthcare and fitter people.
      But Chairman Kim Jong Un came up with a simpler containment strategy: mandatory flu shots. Those who have virus get shot.

  2. Cracks me up. Boomers made it impossible to rapidly build anything, boomers now need infrastructure rapidly built to survive. Farewell and adieu…

    • Who will give your weekly allowance when boomers are gone? Who will wash your socks and change your bed sheets when mom is no more? How would you be able to rent a room without dad’s guarantee?

    • Cartoonish boomer gets it wrong as usual GenX here we raised ourselves. You are thinking of the mostly useless millenials, you know the generation destroyed by participation trophies. Participation trophies handed out by helicoptering boomer parents, boomer teachers, and boomer coaches. On the other hand the one thing you boomers created that will be put to good use is the boomer invention of the nursing home. And your decades of open borders for cheap labor policies will allow us to staff them with the kindest folks the third world can send. If you think you will be able to afford to pay enough to stay out of a nursing home you ain’t paying attention to current events. Haha.
      PS the Beatles always sucked and the silent generation faked ‘your’ moon landing.

    • At least we will have access to nursing homes… in Thailand where we can still have sex with gorgeous 17 yo, thanks to cheap Viagra. We never believed in 401Ks and always hoarded gold.

      And as we die out, we will donate all our possessions to the good course of ISIS and not to the generation of losers and whiners. See, if we had to die tomorrow anyways, what do we care?
      At least we had good sex (before AIDS, that is).

      It’s best to go out with a roar. We will elect the corpse of Joe Biden to govern you. Or we may even re-elect Trump! Your gentle foreign servants will return after the quarantine is lifted. Good luck!

  3. It looks like UK is trusting “thousands lines of undocumented C” to make policy decisions. From Imperial College paper co-author:

    “I’m conscious that lots of people would like to see and run the pandemic simulation code we are using to model control measures against COVID-19. To explain the background – I wrote the code (thousands of lines of undocumented C) 13+ years ago to model flu pandemics…”

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