Models Show Social Distancing Will Help Beat the Coronavirus


Right now, there’s one question on everyone’s mind: When will the outbreak of the coronavirus from China, dubbed Covid-19, end?


Everyone and their best friend has attempted to answer this question. No one can seem to agree. Not even the world’s foremost experts on the issue. Epidemiologists at Harvard University estimated that 40% to 70% of the world population could get the virus. Meanwhile, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan says he “cannot wrap [his head] around 40 to 70 percent of the population being infected within the next few months.”

Some professors and scientists say that warmer weather will help limit spread, as it does with the flu and the cold. Others say it is premature to assume that. Even further, some experts think that social distancing will work, and that current lock-downs are temporary. Others say we will have to be locked down for a few months.

In other words, ask the question “when will Covid-19 end” to a dozen experts, and you’ll probably get a dozen different answers. That’s the nature of dealing in the unknown.

As Marc Chopin, PhD, Dean of the College of Business and Economics and professor of economics at University of Idaho said in an email to InvestorPlace, eventually “AI and big data analysis should improve predictions about where and when the virus may spread, enabling first responders and health care providers to be better prepared for infections in their communities. AI and big data may also shorten the time required to develop vaccines and treatment protocols. That analysis should result in better outcomes for those infected and potentially reduce the number of cases of Covid-19.”

But we’re not fully there yet.

When I’m dealing in the unknown, I put more weight in the data than I do in opinions. I do so because: 1) I’m a numbers guy and 2) the data tells a story that is largely exempt from personal bias.

To be sure, there is very limited data on Covid-19 (only about two months of daily case data). Limited data produces limited results. But, the data gives us a good, albeit rudimentary, framework to structurally and quantifiably understand this virus, how it spreads and what it reacts to.

So, what does the data say? Let’s take a deeper look.

Modeling Covid-19

My modeling of Covid-19 is based on constructing what I call daily, per capita “growth curves” for the virus. The process is pretty simple:

  1. Fetch the data. I fetch daily, country-by-country case data from here.
  2. Normalize the data. To normalize for population differences between countries, I turn daily case data into a per-capita metric. Specifically, I translate raw case numbers into reported cases per 1 million people, in each country.
  3. Turn everything into percents. To calculate how quickly the virus is spreading in each country, I calculate the percent change — not the raw change — in reported cases per capita in each country, so as to account for velocity and momentum of growth with respect to size (an increase in reported cases of 2.5 per capita is more meaningful when there’s only 5 cases per capita, than when there’s 100 cases per capita).
  4. Smooth out the noise. To remove day-to-day noise, I calculate the five-day moving averages for the percent change in each country’s per capita reported cases.
  5. Plot the data, with a consistent starting point. For visual purposes, I plot the data. For consistency purposes, I choose the start date not based on a calendar date (i.e. Jan. 21), but rather based on the start date of virulent spread in a country (i.e. days from when the virus hit 0.4 or more cases per million people in that country).

The resulting plot shows us how quickly the virus is spreading, on a normalized percent and per capita basis, in various countries. If the curves are falling (i.e. growth and spread are slowing), then the virus is on track to disappear. If the curves are rising (i.e. growth and spread are rising), then the virus is on track to sustain exponential growth.

When Will the Coronavirus Outbreak Peak?

So, what do these “growth curves” look like?

They are all falling. Everywhere. Even in Italy, where the virus is “exploding.” Covid-19’s percent growth rate is slowing, from 20%-plus growth through the first several days of March, to sub-20% growth over the past few days.

Source: Chart by Luke Lango

The same is true everywhere else. China’s per capita growth rates have dropped from 20%-plus at the end of January, to essentially zero today. South Korea’s growth rates have also dropped to near-zero today, from 20%-plus in February. The virus was growing at a 30%-plus pace throughout Germany and France for most of late February and early March. Today, per capita growth rates in that country hover closer to 20%. Same with Spain.

That’s good news.

It essentially means that the rate of spread of the virus is slowing everywhere. If these growth curves hold up — and countries like America, Germany and Spain follow the same trajectory as South Korea and China — then the data says that within two to three months, the virus will be largely under control across the globe.

That doesn’t mean the virus has peaked. Far from it. Most countries will continue to report more new cases every day. Peak Covid-19 is still weeks away. But, these curves do show that the world is on track to largely “beat” the virus by May or June.

Social Distancing Is the Key

None of this is to say the coronavirus isn’t something to worry about. It is. Rather, this analysis simply shows the power of social distancing to thwart the virus.

Just look at the curves.

South Korea and China implemented the harshest forms of social distancing. Both of those countries have flattened their growth curves to near-zero. Meanwhile, the growth curves throughout Europe have noticeably dropped as those countries have implemented stricter social distancing policies. There still isn’t much data on the U.S. yet. But, one could presume that the growth curve will decelerate in coming weeks as the country moves toward stricter social distancing measures.

In short, the data almost unequivocally shows that social distancing works in fighting the coronavirus.

Further, if done right, such social distancing doesn’t have to last that long. Just look at China. Consumers over there, where the virus was worst, were locked down for only a few weeks. Now, life in China is slowly returning to normal.

The Bottom Line on the Coronavirus

The data says there is no need to panic. This virus is totally beatable, and can be overcome quite quickly.

However, the data also says that there is a need to act now, by practicing social distancing as much as you can. Doing so results in rapid deceleration of the spread rate, and the sooner we do it, the sooner daily life, the economy and financial markets across the globe can get back to normal.

Luke Lango is a Markets Analyst for InvestorPlace. He has been professionally analyzing stocks for several years, previously working at various hedge funds and currently running his own investment fund in San Diego. A Caltech graduate, Luke has consistently been recognized as one of the best stock pickers in the world by various other analysts and platforms, and has developed a reputation for leveraging his technology background to identify growth stocks that deliver outstanding returns. Luke is also the founder of Fantastic, a social discovery company backed by an LA-based internet venture firm.  As of this writing, he did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.

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