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'Humanity will survive': a Nobel laureate explained why you should not panic because of a coronavirus

Nobel laureate Michael Levitt, an American-British-Israeli biophysicist who teaches structural biology at Stanford University and spends most of his time in Tel Aviv, unexpectedly became a household name in China, offering the public a reassurance during the peak of the Covid-19 coronavirus epidemic in the country. Writes about this Lechaim.

Photo: Shutterstock

Levitt did not find any treatment or medicine, but simply did what he did best: he analyzed the numbers. Statistics led him to conclude that, despite gloomy forecasts, the spread of the virus would be stopped. The reassuring messages that Levitt sent to his friends in China were translated into Chinese and transmitted from person to person, which made him popular.

His predictions turned out to be correct: from February 7, the number of new cases registered every day began to fall. A week later, the mortality rate also began to fall. He may not be a specialist in epidemiology, but in a telephone interview with Calcalist, he confirmed that he knows the calculations and statistics.

Initially, the interview was planned to be held in the fashionable Sarona complex in Tel Aviv, where Levitt currently resides. But after he caught a cold - “not a coronavirus,” he remarked jokingly, “the interview turned into a telephone.” Despite the fact that he believes that the pandemic will pass, Levitt emphasizes that it is necessary to comply with all security measures that are currently being taken.

Levitt received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2013 for "developing multiscale models for complex chemical systems." He was in no way going to be a prophet foretelling the end of the plague; it happened by accident.

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His wife, Shoshan Brosh, is a Chinese art researcher and curator of local photographers. This means that the couple is a whole day between the United States, Israel and China. When the pandemic began, Brosh wrote to friends in China to support them.

“When they answered us, describing how difficult their situation was, I decided to look more closely at the numbers in the hope of reaching some kind of conclusion,” Levitt explained. - The virus infection rate in Hubei increased by 30% every day - this is scary statistics. I’m not an expert on influenza, but I can analyze the numbers, and this is exponential growth. "

According to him, at such a pace, the whole world should have been infected within 90 days. But then the trend changed.

When Levitt began analyzing the data on February 1, there were 1800 new cases in Hubei every day, and within six days this number reached 4700.

“And then, on February 7, the number of new infections began to decrease linearly and this reduction did not stop. A week later, the same thing happened with the death toll. This sharp change in the curve marked the midpoint and made it possible to better predict when the pandemic would end. Based on this, I came to the conclusion that the situation in all of China will improve within two weeks. Indeed, there are very few new infections now, ”says Levitt.

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Levitt compared the situation with bank interest - if on the first day a person receives a 30% interest rate on his savings, the next day - 29%, etc.: "You understand that in the end you will not make a lot of money."

Messages translated by his friends quickly spread throughout China, and people who wanted to make sure that he really wrote the information attributed to him began to contact Levitt.

“That’s how I understood that I need to continue,” he said. “I could say yes, that’s exactly what I said, and leave it as it is.”

Every day, various organizations, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), report new numbers. Levitt began to regularly send reports to his Chinese friends.

According to him, due to the reduction in the number of cases of infection and mortality, the virus is likely to disappear from China by the end of March. Initially, according to Levitt, every patient with coronavirus in China infected an average of 2,2 people per day - this is an exponential growth that can only lead to disaster.

"But then the growth rate began to fall, and the number of new daily infections is now close to zero." He again compared this to interest rates: “even if the interest rate continues to fall, you still earn. The amount you invested does not decrease, but grows more slowly. When it comes to diseases, it is very scary for people because they constantly hear about new cases every day. But the fact that infection rates are slowing means the end of the pandemic is near. ”

According to Levitt, there are several reasons for this.

“In exponential growth models, you assume that new people can become infected every day because you continue to meet new people. But, taking into account your own circle of friends, you basically meet the same people every day. You can meet new people in public transport, but even on the bus after some time, most passengers will be either infected or immune, ”says Levitt.

Another reason the infection rate has slowed is related to physical distance recommendations.

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“Now you don’t hug everyone you meet on the street and avoid meeting face-to-face people like we did,” Levitt said. - The more you adhere to this rule, the more you can control the infection. Thus, under these conditions, the virus carrier will infect only 1,5 people every three days, and the rate of infection will continue to decline. ”

According to Levitt, quarantine is important, but there are other factors.

“We know that in China there was almost complete quarantine, people left their homes just to make important purchases, and avoided contact with other people. In Wuhan, where there was the largest number of infections in Hubei Province, everyone had a chance to become infected, but only 3% became infected, he explained. “Even on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, the infection rate did not exceed 20%.”

Based on these statistics, he concluded that many people are simply naturally immune to the virus.

Levitt emphasized that the surge in cases in Italy is troubling, but he estimates that this is the result of a higher percentage of older people among the Italian population than in China, France or Spain.

“In addition, Italian culture is very open, and Italians lead a very eventful social life. For these reasons, it is important to isolate people and prevent contact between sick and healthy people, ”the man explained.

According to Levitt, China has done a great job and managed to gain full control of the virus.

“At the moment, I’m most worried about the fact that the US should isolate as many people as possible in order to gain time for preparation. Otherwise, this could lead to a situation where 20000 infected people will simultaneously go to nearby hospitals and the healthcare system will collapse, ”says Levitt.

According to Levitt, Israel currently does not have enough cases to provide the data needed for the assessment, but from what it can say, the Ministry of Health is dealing with the pandemic in the right, positive way: “The tougher the protective measures will be taken, the more they will have time to prepare for the necessary treatment and to develop a vaccine. ”

Levitt avoids making global predictions. In China, he said, the number of new infections will soon reach zero, and South Korea has already overcome the midpoint and can already see the end of the epidemic. Regarding the rest of the world, it's still hard to say.

“This will end when all patients will meet only with those whom they have already infected. The goal is not to reach the situation that happened on the cruise ship, ”he says.

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According to Levitt, Diamond Princess was the worst case scenario.

“If you compare the ship with the country, we say that 250 people crowded into one square kilometer, which is terribly crowded. This is four times more than crowding in Hong Kong. It looks as if the entire population of Israel was squeezed into 000 square kilometers, ”says Levitt.

In addition, he said, the ship had a central air conditioning and heating system, as well as a common dining room. “These are extremely comfortable conditions for the virus, and yet only 20% have been infected. This is a lot, but it is very similar to the level of infection with ordinary flu. "

According to Levitt, most people dying of coronavirus are over 70 years old.

“It's a well-known fact that the flu mostly kills older people — about three quarters of the deaths from the flu are in people over 65,” says Levitt.

“There are years when the flu is raging, like in the US in 2017, when mortality was three times higher than usual. And yet we did not succumb to panic. Here is my message: you should think of coronavirus as a severe flu. It’s four to eight times stronger than normal flu, and yet most people will remain healthy and humanity will survive, ”Levitt said.

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