Modeling a Pandemic
UGA research predicts how COVID-19 infections will spread
Director, Center for the Ecology of Infectious Diseases
Distinguished Research Professor
Odum School of Ecology
As Ebola raged across Africa in 2014, Distinguished Research Professor John Drake and his colleagues at the University of Georgia developed sophisticated mathematical models that helped predict the epidemic’s spread and guided policies designed to save lives.
Six years later, the deadly virus that Drake and his team are battling has hit much closer to home.
One thing is abundantly clear from Drake’s disease transmission models.
“Social distancing saves lives,” he says emphatically. “A single new infection today can result in two or three infections in less than a week, which means that every individual act of social distancing has exponential benefits to your family, your friends and your community.”
For many Americans, the coronavirus pandemic has been a dizzying descent into a reality marked by a combination of isolation and illness. China reported its first death on Jan. 11. The first documented case of person-to-person transmission in the United States was 19 days later. In February, cases in Europe spiked. In March, states began enacting the social distancing measures that have closed schools and shuttered businesses. But the death toll continues to rise.
Drake’s models build upon the lessons he and his colleagues learned from past outbreaks—from Ebola in Africa to West Nile Virus in New York City and white nose syndrome in bats across North America. He points out that ecologists have been creating models to describe ecosystems for decades, examining relationships like predator-prey interactions and shifts in species composition following the introduction invasive species or new diseases. In this case, the new disease happens to be COVID-19.
Drake and his team are collaborating with state officials, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and researchers at institutions around the world. As new data become available, they continue to refine our understanding of how human interventions can impact the course of the pandemic. Ultimately, their work will help guide the safe return of millions of children to schools and the reopening of businesses.
Increasing the frequency of testing to better identify infected people—and then educating and potentially isolating people who have been in contact with them—will be essential. Identifying people who have recovered from the virus and have some degree of immunity as a result could be an additional strategy to pursue.
“Models are tools that allow us to explore ideas, ask questions and get plausible answers,” Drake says. “Some of the most urgent questions today revolve around how we can minimize the devastation caused by COVID-19 and get our society back to a new normal.”