An epidemic spreads faster than wildfire. Unmitigated, it will reach a large fraction of the population before abating, causing hundreds of millions of deaths even with a mortality rate of just 1 percent. For the first time in history, a worldwide effort is underway to stop the spread of a pandemic through stay-home orders and social distancing. This unprecedented response spares human lives and healthcare systems, but it also leaves us in an unstable situation. Unlike an unmitigated pandemic, which burns through the susceptible population and eventually burns out, a mitigated first wave preserves a population of unexposed, susceptible individuals. This means that when social distancing guidelines are relaxed, the epidemic can once again spread worldwide and bring us back where we started.

So, what happens after the first wave?

To explore this question, SFI convened an online workshop on March 31 with leading epidemiologists from its collaboration networks. Sam Scarpino, a former SFI Omidyar Fellow and network scientist at Northeastern University who is mapping the real-time spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, co-organized the two-hour “flash workshop” with Professors Cris Moore and Michael Lachmann.
“Some places like South Korea and China are past the first wave,” Scarpino opened, “and in the U.S. we are still on the upswing. Part of the reason we’re having this conversation now is so we can both prepare for what’s coming and also so we can re-deploy to areas that will be experiencing their first wave.”

In the first 90 minutes of the workshop, four speakers presented their research on the COVID-19 pandemic and its potential economic consequences. External Professor and Science Board member Lauren Ancel Meyers, based at the University of Texas Austin, and Sara del Valle of Los Alamos National Lab, spoke about their teams' efforts to support public health decision-making by simulating how the pandemic would spread under different scenarios, such as school closures and social distancing at various stages in the outbreak, and for various lengths of time. Both speakers’ models showed significant secondary waves.

Caroline Buckee, a former SFI Omidyar Fellow now at Harvard’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, started by enumerating key parameters we don’t yet understand for COVID-19. For example, although we have published case counts from around the world, the widespread shortage of tests and lack of testing data means we still haven’t grasped just how many people in the population actually carry the infection, with or without showing symptoms. Buckee went on to describe her team’s work analyzing mobility data from cell phone carriers, which can reveal whether and to what extent people are following social distancing guidelines. She emphasized that a crucial aspect of this work is passing reports on to lawmakers in a way that protects the privacy of the users, and prevents demographic groups from being targeted.

In the final presentation, External Professor Rajiv Sethi (Barnard College, Columbia University) and his collaborator Glen Weyl (Microsoft, RadicalxChange Foundation) looked at the economic implications of containing the pandemic. Citing the massive unemployment that has already resulted from social distancing, they proposed a new containment strategy, “mobilize and transition,” that would reduce COVID-19 mortality while easing the economic decline.

The workshop then opened up the discussion for an hour to more than 130 SFI-affiliated researchers, which Scarpino called “0ne of the most exciting groups of people I’ve seen on a Zoom call.”

Bigger-picture, socioeconomic consequences featured prominently. Professor Mirta Galesic raised concerns about societal tipping points that often occur in times of crisis. Former External Professor Carl Bergstrom at the University of Washington followed up by remarking on the importance of maintaining the public’s trust through consistent messaging. Former SFI Postdoctoral Fellow Laurent Hébert-Dufresne at the University of Vermont questioned the best way to ease out of social distancing, while Professor Sam Bowles and External Professor Simon DeDeo at Carnegie Mellon raised related points about the need for new social norms.

Lachmann, Moore, and SFI President David Krakauer are in the process of organizing a follow-up flash workshop on April 14 on the social, psychological, and economic mechanisms to mitigate pandemics, capitalizing on the Institute's pioneering work in these areas.
“SFI and its broader network have a unique ability to bring epidemiologists and economists together to explore how we can recover from both the pandemic and its economic cost,” Moore says.