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Corona Is Slowing Down, Humanity Will Survive, Says Biophysicist Michael Levitt

avatar by Ari Libsker / CTech

A member of a medical team wears a protective face mask, following the coronavirus outbreak, as he prepares disinfectant liquid to sanitize public places in Tehran, Iran, March 5, 2020. Photo: WANA (West Asia News Agency) / Nazanin Tabatabaee via Reuters.

CTech – Nobel laureate Michael Levitt, an American-British-Israeli biophysicist who teaches structural biology at Stanford University and spends much of his time in Tel Aviv, unexpectedly became a household name in China, offering the public reassurance during the peak of the country’s coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak. Levitt did not discover a treatment or a cure, just did what he does best: crunched the numbers. The statistics led him to the conclusion that, contrary to the grim forecasts being branded about, the spread of the virus will come to a halt.

The calming messages Levitt sent to his friends in China were translated into Chinese and passed from person to person, making him a popular subject for interviews in the Asian nation. His forecasts turned out to be correct: the number of new cases reported each day started to fall as of February 7. A week later, the mortality rate started falling as well.

He might not be an expert in epidemiology, but Levitt understands calculations and statistics, he told Calcalist in a phone interview earlier this week.

The interview was initially scheduled to be held at the fashionable Sarona complex in Tel Aviv, where Levitt currently resides. But after he caught a cold — “not corona,” he jokingly remarked — the interview was rescheduled to be held over the phone. Even though he believes the pandemic will run its course, Levitt emphasizes his support of all the safety measures currently being taken and the need to adhere to them.

Levitt received his Nobel prize for chemistry in 2013 for “the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems.” He did not in any way intend to be a prophet foretelling the end of a plague; it happened by accident. His wife Shoshan Brosh is a researcher of Chinese art and a curator for local photographers, meaning the couple splits their time between the US, Israel, and China.

When the pandemic broke out, Brosh wrote to friends in China to support them. “When they answered us, describing how complicated their situation was, I decided to take a deeper look at the numbers in the hope of reaching some conclusion,” Levitt explained. “The rate of infection of the virus in the Hubei province increased by 30 percent each day — that is a scary statistic. I am not an influenza expert but I can analyze numbers and that is exponential growth.” At this rate, the entire world should have been infected within 90 days, he said.

But then, the trend changed. When Levitt started analyzing the data on February 1, Hubei had 1,800 new cases each day and within six days this number reached 4,700, he said. “And then, on February 7, the number of new infections started to drop linearly and did not stop. A week later, the same happened with the number of the deaths. This dramatic change in the curve marked the median point and enabled better prediction of when the pandemic will end. Based on that, I concluded that the situation in all of China will improve within two weeks. And, indeed, now there are very few new infection cases.”

Levitt compared the situation to bank interest — if on the first day a person receives an interest rate of 30 percent on their savings, the next day of 29 percent, and so forth, “you understand that eventually, you will not earn very much.”

The messages his friends translated quickly made waves in China and people wanting to make sure he did indeed write the information attributed to him started contacting Levitt. “That is how I knew I needed to continue,” he said. “I could have said, yes, that’s what I said,’ and left it at that.”

New numbers were being reported every day by various entities, such as the World Health Organization (WHO). Levitt started sending regular reports to his Chinese friends, and their popularity led to interviews on Chinese television, for example on CNN-equivalent CGTN. Based on the diminishing number of infection cases and deaths, he said, the virus will probably disappear from China by the end of March.

Initially, Levitt said, every coronavirus patient in China infected on average 2.2 people a day — spelling exponential growth that can only lead to disaster. “But then it started dropping, and the number of new daily infections is now close to zero.” He compared it to interest rates again: “even if the interest rate keeps dropping, you still make money. The sum you invested does not lessen, it just grows more slowly. When discussing diseases, it frightens people a lot because they keep hearing about new cases every day. But the fact that the infection rate is slowing down means the end of the pandemic is near.”

There are several reasons for this, according to Levitt. “In exponential growth models, you assume that new people can be infected every day, because you keep meeting new people. But, if you consider your own social circle, you basically meet the same people every day. You can meet new people on public transportation, for example; but even on the bus, after some time most passengers will either be infected or immune.”

Another reason the infection rate has slowed has to do with the physical distance guidelines. “You don’t hug every person you meet on the street now, and you’ll avoid meeting face to face with someone that has a cold, like we did,” Levitt said. “The more you adhere, the more you can keep infection in check. So, under these circumstances, a carrier will only infect 1.5 people every three days and the rate will keep going down.”

Quarantine makes a difference, according to Levitt, but there are other factors at work. “We know China was under almost complete quarantine, people only left home to do crucial shopping and avoided contact with others. In Wuhan, which had the highest number of infection cases in the Hubei province, everyone had a chance of getting infected, but only 3 percent caught it,” he explained. “Even on the Diamond Princess (the virus-stricken cruise ship), the infection rate did not top 20 percent.” Based on these statistics, Levitt said, he concluded that many people are just naturally immune to the virus.

The explosion of cases in Italy is worrying, Levitt said, but he estimates it is a result of a higher percentage of elderly people than in China, France, or Spain. “Furthermore, Italian culture is very warm, and Italians have a very rich social life. For these reasons, it is important to keep people apart and prevent sick people from coming into contact with healthy people.”

China did great work and managed to gain complete control of the virus, Levitt said. “Currently, I am most worried about the US. It must isolate as many people as possible to buy time for preparations. Otherwise, it can end up in a situation where 20,000 infected people will descend on the nearest hospital at the same time and the healthcare system will collapse.”

Israel currently does not have enough cases to provide the data needed to make estimates, Levitt said, but from what he can tell, the Ministry of Health is dealing with the pandemic in a correct, positive way. “The more severe the defensive measures taken, the more they will buy time to prepare for needed treatment and develop a vaccine.”

Levitt avoids making global forecasts. In China, he said, the number of new infections will soon reach zero, and South Korea is past the median point and can already see the end. Regarding the rest of the world, it is still hard to tell, he said. “It will end when all those who are sick will only meet people they have already infected. The goal is not to reach the situation the cruise ship experienced.”

The Diamond Princess was the worst case scenario, according to Levitt. “If you compare the ship to a country — we are talking 250,000 people crowded into one square kilometer, which is horribly crowded. It is four times the crowding in Hong Kong. It is as if the entire Israeli population was crammed into 30 square kilometers.” Furthermore, he said, the ship had a central air conditioning and heating system and a communal dining room. “Those are extremely comfortable conditions for the virus and still, only 20 percent were infected. It is a lot, but pretty similar to the infection rate of the common flu.”

As with the flu, most of those dying as a result of coronavirus are over 70 years old, Levitt said. “It is a known fact that the flu mostly kills the elderly — around three-quarters of flu mortalities are people over 65.” To put things in proportion: “there are years when flu is raging, like in the US in 2017, when there were three times the regular number of mortalities. And still, we did not panic. That is my message: you need to think of corona like a severe flu. It is four to eight times as strong as a common flu, and yet, most people will remain healthy and humanity will survive.”


Mutant H5N1 — Why?

Killer-Flu Debate: Should Mutant H5N1 Have Been Created?

Wynne Parry, LiveScience Senior Writer
Date: 23 December 2011 Time: 10:11 AM ET
chickens, bird flu research, controversy
Controversial new research found a way to make bird flu spread easily among mammals.

News of two separate research projects that altered the bird-flu virus so it could potentially spread between humans has some experts asking: Should this research have been done at all?

Other scientists, however, are defending the projects as important progress in understanding how the virus, called H5N1, could adapt to cause a devastating pandemic.

“I wouldn’t do it,” said W. Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. “I think it is one thing to study the pathology of an organism to try to understand ways in which you can reduce the risk to humankind or animals by doing basic research. … This isn’t the case [here]; this virus doesn’t transmit readily to humans.”

Others argue that the two projects addressed questions crucial to averting a global tragedy: Could H5N1 mutate into a form that could spread between humans? And, if so, how

“The bottom line is science has been advanced by this, we know something about the virus that we didn’t know before,” Thomas Daniels, an associate research scientist and co-director of the Vector Ecology Laboratory at Fordham University, told LiveScience. “It could be it’s going to be very, very useful down the road, but right now we have to proceed with caution.”

An unusual exception

The details of the studies aren’t available yet, in fact, the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) has asked the researcher and the journals considering publishing their work to withhold details that could provide a blueprint for those seeking to do harm.

In science, experiments and their results are shared so others can reproduce them and advance the field, but this case seems to merit special consideration. Half a dozen scientists interviewed for this article supported withholding details, such as the specific genetic changes in the altered viruses.

Bird flu basics

The bird flu is deadly for birds, only rarely infecting humans who catch it directly from the birds. But when people do catch it the results are often deadly –- since November 2003, nearly 600 human infections have been reported globally, and approximately 60 percent of those have been fatal, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

One of the two groups to have created a more transmissible form of the virus, led by Ron Fouchier from Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, developed a form of H5N1 that ferrets, which are mammals like us, could catch from one another even though they were not in physical contact. In other words, the infection became airborne, according to reports based on Fouchier’s presentation at a meeting in Malta in September.

The other study, led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the University of Tokyo, also produced a more highly transmissible form of the virus using ferrets, although more details were not available.

A dangerous undertaking

Publishing the specifics of these projects would be the second mistake; the first was conducting these experiments, write biosecurity experts, led by Thomas Ingelsby, CEO and director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

This work was conducted by internationally respected scientists working under top-of-the-line biosafety conditions, but “the risk of a person accidentally becoming infected and starting an outbreak with this new strain is low. But it is not zero,” they write in an editorial published on Dec. 15 in the journal Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Science.They cite the accidental release of an influence strain from a lab in 1977. [Predicting the Next Major Virus]

The potential benefits, such as screening viruses for similar changes or developing a pandemic-preventing vaccine based on the engineered strain, are uncertain and do not outweigh the risks, they write.

Preparing for a crisis

Others say the work isn’t risking catastrophe; it may help prevent one.

“It should not have been done if the final goal is to show you can make a deadly virus,” said Dr. Andrea Gambotto, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh, School of Medicine, and director of the university’s Vector Core Facility. “In this case, the goal is different; the goal is to try to predict what can happen, how a virus can mutate.”

Vaccines and antiviral medications effective against H5N1 exist, but these were designed to fight off a virus that has not fully adapted to humans. So, it’s not clear how they would fare against a strain that has made the evolutionary jump and can spread among humans as the Fouchier’s did among ferrets, he said.

The altered viruses developed by Fouchier’s and Kawaoka’s research might give researchers a better idea of how to prepare, Gambotto said.

Vaccine developers could test the existing vaccines against the lab strains to get at least some idea of how effective they might be against the mutant virus. If they don’t prevent infection, then developers know they’ll need something else in order to have a running start, he said.

“By the time we start seeing the first people dying, isolate a virus, generate a vaccine, it is probably one year or eight months if everything goes smoothly,” he said. “But that eight months can be deadly for humanity.”

A wake-up call

The demonstration that bird flu can be coaxed into spreading easily among mammals is a wake-up call to the world that has been tuning out a potential pandemic, Robert Webster, a virologist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, told LiveScience.

“The virus has been around for 15 years since it appeared in Hong Kong and it first got a lot of attention, then less, and less. Even though it has [caused] 600 cases in humans and killed about 60 percent of people, people were starting to say this is an aberration, so let’s move on to worry about bigger problems,” Webster said. “These two papers make it clear this can happen.”

In comparison, the flu pandemic of 1918 killed about 2.5 percent of the people it infected.

“People are saying the scientists were irresponsible for doing this; it was not an irresponsible thing to do,” Webster said. “These scientists are the leading scientists in the world in influenza and they made a huge contribution.”


New Light on the Black Death

Molecular Clues Hint at What Really Caused the Black Death

Wynne Parry, LiveScience Senior Writer
Date: 07 September 2011 Time: 12:25 PM ET
A depiction of the black death from a 15th century Bible.

The Black Death arrived in London in the fall of 1348, and although the worst passed in less than a year, the disease took a catastrophic toll. An emergency cemetery in East Smithfield received more than 200 bodies a day between the following February and April, in addition to bodies buried in other graveyards, according to a report from the time.

The disease that killed Londoners buried in East Smithfield and at least one of three Europeans within a few years time is commonly believed to be bubonic plague, a bacterial infection marked by painful, feverish, swollen lymph nodes, called buboes. Plague is still with us in many parts of the world, although now antibiotics can halt its course.

But did this disease really cause the Black Death? The story behind this near-apocalypse in 14th century Europe is not clear-cut, since what we know about modern plague in many ways does not match with what we know about the Black Death. And if plague isn’t responsible for the Black Death, scientists wonder what could’ve caused the sweeping massacre and whether that killer is still lurking somewhere.

Now, a new study using bone and teeth taken from East Smithfield adds to mounting evidence exhumed from Black Death graves and tantalizes skeptics with hints at the true nature of the disease that wiped out more than a third of Europeans 650 years ago.

This team of researchers approached the topic with open minds when they began looking for genetic evidence of the killer.

“Essentially by looking at the literature on the Black Death there were several candidates for what could have been the cause,” said Sharon DeWitte, one of the researchers who is now an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of South Carolina.

Their first suspect: Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes modern plague, including bubonic plague.

The speed of plague

In 1894, Alexander Yersin and another scientist separately identified Y. pestis during an epidemic in Hong Kong. Years later the bacterium was given his name. Yersin also connected his discovery to the pestilence that swept Europe during the Black Death, an association that has stuck.

One problem, however, is that compared to the wildfire-like spread of the Black Death, the modern plague moves more leisurely. The modern plague pandemic began in the Yunnan Province of China in the mid-19th century, then spread to Hong Kong and then via ship, to India, where it exacted the heaviest toll, and to San Francisco in 1899, among many other places.

The disease that caused the Black Death is believed to have traveled much quicker, arriving in Europe from Asia in 1347, after the Golden Horde, a Mongol Army, catapulted plague-infected bodies into a Genoese settlement near the Black Sea. The disease traveled with the Italian traders and later appeared in Sicily, according to Samuel Cohn, a professor of medieval history at the University of Glasglow and author of “The Black Death Transformed: Disease and Culture in the Early Renaissance Europe” (Bloomsbury USA, 2003).

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