COVID-19, Health, Science / Tech

Social Distancing and Stay-Home Orders Are Likely To Save Millions

A new study by influential researchers at Imperial College, London finds that COVID-19 is more infectious and deadly than scientists had thought. 

The new Imperial study finds that had nations done nothing, COVID-19 would have killed 40 million and infected seven billion. 

An earlier, March 16th study by Imperial College, predicting millions of deaths, helped inspire UK, US, and other governments around the world to take much stronger actions including stay-at-home orders, last week.

Some conservative pandemic skeptics misrepresented the new study as saying something closer to the opposite of what it actually said.

“Epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, who created the highly-cited Imperial College London coronavirus model,” wrote the Daily Wire, “offered a massive revision to his model on Wednesday.”

What the reporter failed to note was that the revision to the model was based on the nationwide lockdown the UK government imposed, not because researchers had over-estimated the risk.

“Our analysis, therefore, suggests that healthcare demand can only be kept within manageable levels,” the Imperial researchers conclude, “through the rapid adoption of public health measures… similar to those being adopted in many countries at the current time.”

Over the last three weeks, it has become more clear that what makes the disease so deadly is that its transmission is so rapid that those made most sick from it overwhelm hospitals.

Healthcare systems in most nations are woefully unprepared for the resulting spike of patients needing critical care beds complete with ventilators and well-trained nurses.

Where pandemic skeptics suggested that Imperial College researchers had admitted to over-reacting, they were, in reality, saying something closer to the opposite. “Delays in implementing strategies to suppress transmission will lead to worse outcomes and fewer lives saved.”

The researchers concluded that even with severe mitigation strategies—60 percent reduction in social contacts for elderly and 40 percent reduction for everyone else—20 million people would still die because hospitals would become overwhelmed in rich and poor nations.

In high-income nations like the US and UK, the peak demand for ICU beds would outstrip supply seven-fold, while in low-income nations, demand would outstrip supply 25-fold, resulting in many thousands of preventable deaths.

For that reason, the Imperial scientists conclude, “suppression strategies will need to be maintained in some manner until vaccines or effective treatments become available to avoid the risk of later epidemics.”

In truth, the big story is that COVID-19 turned out to be more infectious and deadly than scientists had originally believed. On February 26th, researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health estimated the novel coronavirus could kill 12 million and infect 3.5 billion. 

Other top scientists underestimated the risk, including Anthony Fauci, the head of the US National Institutes of Health, and the top scientist guiding US efforts. On January 26th Fauci said, “It’s a very, very low risk… isn’t something the public needs to worry about or be frightened about.”

It was only after coronavirus proved so much more deadly in China and Italy that governments outside of Asia took dramatic actions including radical social distancing and stay-at-home orders.

“If a suppression strategy is implemented early,” Imperial researchers found, “and sustained, then 38.7 million lives could be saved whilst if it is initiated when death numbers are high… then 30.7 million lives could be saved. Delays in implementing strategies to suppress transmission will lead to worse outcomes and fewer lives saved.”

Popular resistance to suppression could lead to rapid transmission and more death, making it imperative for national leaders to offer a vision for how the pandemic ends, scaling up testing, and give people who are not allowed to work the money and resources they need to survive.


Michael Shellenberger is a Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment,” and president of Environmental Progress, an independent research and policy organization. Follow him on Twitter @ShellenbergerMD


  1. I don’t know about this article.
    To date, the model provided by Dr. Christakis clearly places COVID-19’s severity somewhere between the influenza’s of 1968 and 1957. Now, I have a few questions which I doubt will be answered here as elsewhere; however:

    1. The data still seems to suggest that older people and people with comorbidities are most likely to develop severe symptoms. If this virus is as lethal as this article claims, shouldn’t it be killing MORE healthy people and younger demographics?

    2. What state has the general health of our societies degenerated to if we have to shelter-in-place?

    3. If the model out of Yale is correct, then why are we treating this like the 1918 Influenza? That pathogen took lives in every demographic - en mass.

    The most important factor here is the lack of testing across countries. If we could test like Iceland, for example, we might have a better picture.

    Currently, the evidence suggests that 50% of the people infected won’t even present the illness. The other 50%, 80% will have a mild illness, and of that 80%, 20% of them will have a moderate/severe illness.

    Then there was the counter study proposed by Oxford to discover contrary evidence.

    One thing is for sure, if this pathogen was as lethal as everyone says it is, it would be killing a lot more people in every country. To date, 500 000 infections worldwide out of a population of 7 Billion?

    Yes, I’m skeptical about the data - ALL of the data. No, I don’t consider myself a Conservative, but thank you for the partisan judgment.

  2. Seven billion is basically the global populace. Am I allowed to express doubt over the math that arrived at that figure or does doing so automatically make me a right-wing nutjob? Also, since neither the lockdowns or the coronavirus are over, we can’t blithely assume the lockdowns have already worked. Also, predictably, unemployment has spiked (in the US to 20%, and the US is a major economy). If the coronavirus flares up again, which it could well do, countries will have less economic resources to combat it.

  3. The Science is Settled! Only a right winger would ever question it. By the way, 40 mil divided by 7 billion is 0.57% fatality rate.

  4. Like most ‘ordinary people’ of reasonable intelligence, I don’t have a clue what the best answers/actions are. Never having personally experienced what a serious depression actually means to a way of life I have so far enjoyed V the outside chance of landing in ICU unable to breathe, I have to rely on experts who presumably know what they are doing and politicians who probably don’t. I am aware that a serious depression inevitably seems to lead to war and mayhem. Maybe, in more enlightened times this can be avoided.
    To a large extent, like most people, I have to accept the decisions made, do what is required and hope it is the right call. It is unfortunate that politics seeps in to every aspect of what is going on muddying the water and creating more anxiety.
    Also unfortunate but probably unavoidable is the competing ideas of experts, all of whom sound persuasive, as to the best course of action.
    The shrieking of those in the media whose opinions and reporting are tainted with politics and who also seem to think they know more than anyone doesn’t help.
    No one will know whether the right call is suppression or to hold back and save the economy until it is all over, if it is ever all over. Certainly, the effects of a broken economy has the potential to linger for years.
    In the meantime, I am into Game of Thrones book 4, then will move onto Hilary Mantel’s trilogy, rereading the first two in preparation for the latest tome.
    I am also doing a lot of solitary walking.

  5. Is it just me, or does anyone feel as though their is a need for an independent science-based news agency, which reports the facts and not the hyperbole? I’ve noticed the same thing on climate change- with opinion journalism ranging from the sceptical to the ultra-alarmist, and almost no one reporting the best science at the moment- that man-made climate change represents a long term problem for humanity, with modest implications by 2100, and more worrying ones by 2150 (discounting black swan scenarios). People actually believe that the bulk of the world’s extreme weather events are caused by climate change, when the scientists at the IPCC have stated that they have low confidence in this claim.

    It seems to me that we are increasingly being led by the polarised viewpoints from the legacy media, desperate to maintain their market share, in a media landscape that rewards players that pander to people’s pre-conceived positions. We need some form of non-governmental scientific institution, with built-in viewpoint diversity, to report the objective truth. I have absolutely no idea how such an institution would be funded, or how one would guard against the emergence of a market-led approach. But it rapidly becoming clear that government and media seem to be trapped in a feedback loop, which means that the rational approach to any issue, is the one least likely to be adopted.

  6. In all scientific analysis " gross simplifications" are thrown out before one starts. You dont even START on that basis because its a waste of time

    Have you ever done any modelling?

    This is exactly how you start. You never can model everything you have to create a grossly simplified model because modelling the full system is impossible but you do it in a way thaat (you hope) captures the important behaviour. Then you test it.

    Your approach I think is to simply say this can’t be done and then say what? We can make no predictions of any sort about anything with respect to this disease? How does this help anyone?

    Even the simple calculations that say a 0.3% fatality rate with a 50% infection rate in the US mean that 500,000 would die and if 3% become serious ill the healthcare system would need to handle 5,000,000 seriously ill patients. That is a model, a very, very crude one but are we really supposed to ignore this sort of thing and do no modelling at all? How does anyone make any decisions about what the response should be?

    Incidently this sort of calculation shows exactly why governments have to react, even with some optimistic assumptions the modeled consequences for no actions are severe.

  7. I have to say, this article really made me chuckle.

    What apocalyptic nonsense. And when you start bringing politics into it oh boy. Are we saying that Conservatives are so stupid - as a group - that they will deny clear facts?!

    It’s more likely that the author is talking out of his bottom. This study makes some insane assumptions that there is no way they could have properly tested but clearly just chucked a bunch of “best guess” figures into their model and pumped out a few versions until they found one that sounds scary enough to get front page coverage.

    And to cap it all off the authors give themselves the best get out clause; On the one hand we predict everyone will get sick and millions will die, THE HORROR, but WAIT the suggestions we made to social distance (vote Labour! Tory Scum!!) have now been followed, huzzah now hardly anyone will die and the infection rate will be super low. Prove it wasn’t our suggestion that worked!

    It’s ridiculous. I don’t know the answer but I know enough about modelling complex system to know that the sheer number of unknown factors they will have had to make guesses on make the results basically worthless, especially when modelling a global system which is the definition of chaotic interactions and unintended consequences. One tiny, little error of half a percent on just one assumption (of the dozens they make) is enough to skew the data when its run at such high numbers as to make it completely useless except as an intellectual exercise.

  8. I had to enroll in the circle so I could thank you for the amusement you provided me this morning. Time’s “Hero of the Environment” indeed! Now if you posted this article in the manner one hangs a ball from a string to engage their cats in batting at it, you have succeeded admirably. The other posters are ably calling out the issues with Neil Ferguson’s model.

    If, however, you meant to communicate good and timely science information to me you have only succeeded in lowering Quillette on my reading rotation. I have enjoyed the writing on Quillette for some time, but this article calls into question your judgement.

  9. Absolutely not just you.
    The climate change point is well made.
    Q “Is the virus a problem?”
    A “Depends on you you talk to”
    This is NOT how a health pandemic should be treated and IMO the supposed adults in the room from the health side such as the WHO have a serious credibility issue.
    What exactly did we know when Covid 19 popped up?

    1. Originated in China
    2. Chinese officials sat on it for at least a month or more before admitting it existed.
    3. It was highly infectious.
    4. It killed people.
    5. No known vaccine.

    In Canada, specifically in the Toronto area, all we heard that there was nothing to fear except anti-Chinese backlash and racism.
    Travel bans are unnecessary and won’t work anyway.
    Self quarantine of recent visitors to China (mostly Chinese people) was xenophobic.
    One health “expert” opined that over-reacting would be bad for tourism.

    My point is that I expect medical gurus to offer up their best-evidenced based MEDICAL opinion, unfettered by their personal social justice or economic beliefs.

    “Is this virus dangerous or not?!”
    “Uh, we don’t know for sure.”

    Shouldn’t the default approach be “It’s bad” unless or until medical science can prove it either way?
    So maybe we could have at least suspended travel in and out of China until we knew more?

    I can’t remember exactly what news outlet it was in but I’ve only heard one medical person say that unknown viruses absolutely require a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ approach in order to mitigate risk.

  10. Currently world wide there are 575,000[+] cases with 26,500[+] deaths.

    “On February 26, researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health estimatedthe novel coronavirus could kill 12 million and infect 3.5 billion.”

    These numbers would not appear to jive unless a massive outbreak is on the horizon. Suppose one starting with 2 cases one calculated the number of cases growing exponentially every day. By my calculations that would mean after 30 days over 1 billion people would be infected. After less than 60 days the number of infections would surpass the entire population of the world. Perhaps someone can assist me. I have perused articles from both sides of the spectrum and almost all discuss the virus doubling in so many days and describe such progress as exponential. I’m no mathematician but I always thought where each term after the first is found by multiplying the previous one by a fixed, non-zero number called the common ratio. For example, the sequence 2, 6, 18, 54, … is a geometric progression with common ratio 3. Whereas an exponential progression would advance by a common power. For example 2, 4, 16, 256…is an exponential progression with a common power of 2. Wouldn’t a doubling after so many days be a geometric progression?


    Yes a “cut the crap” source of data and facts would be nice. One issue I see is a total lack of accountability by the self proclaimed 4th Estate. A reporter can submit forged documents about a candidate, inaccurately report poll closing times, be discovered faking test results, make unsubstantiated and later shown false claims about politicians and there are no consequences. There is only the obligatory “I’m sorry” which is generally riddled with alleged mitigating excuses. Seldom does one lose his job, have is salary reduced or receive a demotion. What is the requisite number of failed predictions, errors, misstatements, or falsehoods before one is branded a liar or a fool?

  11. There is indeed a stark divide in US coverage. It started when this was published:

    It’s not getting any better today, now that we have this:

    Basically, our Leftists decided to politicize the virus, and ever since, there’s been a broad divergence in narrative as to the severity.

  12. I have come to see the seriousness of COVID-19, but it wasn’t natural for me. I was skeptical that the mortality rate wasn’t as high as stated, but I now think that is irrelevant.

    I see the bigger problem with this coronavirus is the combination of its contagiousness with its hospitalization rate and length of hospital stay. It is a Hospital destroyer. A virus can be a killer simply because it can spike so quickly.

    All that said, the mortality rate might be 2-10 times lower than stated, but the same is likely true with the flu. In most years the flu has a supposed mortality rate on the order of 0.1%, but how many marginally symptomatic people go unreported with the flu? The ratio of mortality rates, given a modern medical system, is still probably 10X. …but the real mortality rate could be much higher if the virus crushes the medical system.

    I think that is the valid fear that is driving the world’s actions.

  13. If you are between 1 and 40 years old, plus healthy and fit, then there is only the remotest chance you will ever die from this hidden enemy. The rate is certainly a lot less than 0.1%. All the data point in one direction. If you are old and sick already then this is a very deadly disease, indeed. We must take it as seriously as possible. But it means, in short, that there are wildly different fatality rates for individual people. To tell the young and working classes that they must stay at home or risk their lives is a criminal lie and a danger to public health and well being, potentially catastrophic. It should be prosecuted, if only we had a law.

    We certainly can defend the vulnerable against this hidden enemy, but unfortunately, the discussion as to how best to do this has not even begun. We are condemning the elderly to almost certain death by locking them up with their grandchildren in the large, densely populated metro areas. Their children most likely still go to work and view having grandma around to watch the kids as some sort of blessing. Sure, they take every precaution with social distancing, but kids will be kids. Kids will, for certain, find ways around the quarantine. Anyone who believes otherwise is deluding themselves.

  14. This article goes off the rails almost immediately. The author claims that “researchers” made “findings”, but what actually happened is that modelers made predictions, and predictions are not scientific findings. All predictions are conditioned, and this one was conditioned, according to the article, on ‘nothing being done’, which was never going to happen. So the modelers made a prediction of what would happen in a state of the world that could never obtain? Fivethirtyeight produced a survey of infectious disease experts asking for their best case, worst case and “most likely case” estimates for US fatalities. The results ranged from 4,000 to 1million. The fact is that there is a lot of uncertainty, and this single prediction from Imperial College has provided nothing to decrease that uncertainty.

  15. The fixation some people have on the age and health of the people hardest hit by Wuhan flu is a little disturbing. It’s like the way pro-abortion people talk about fetuses, like some facet of what it means to be very young or very old means your life is worth less. If I didn’t know better, I’d think this place is populated by leftists eager for the old and sick to die so their socialized health care schemes can be solvent a few more years.

    When dealing with a new virus flooding hospitals, it is prudent to press pause and get a handle on the situation. The fatality rate is a distraction, because you can get yourself mixed up with arguments on how many mild cases go undetected - for fun, play that game with the regular flu, and see how easy it is to get lost down that rabbit hole. Let’s look at the real world: hastily-built hospitals in Wuhan, full morgues in Italy, crematoriums running 24/7, mass graves. Whether the virus is unusually deadly or unusually contagious, the result is the same: overwhelmed hospitals

    This is often compared to the flu, but the flu is a quiet, low-level static of tragedy, while this is a loud, demanding spike. Are we the kind of people who shrug in the face of such an assault, or who take control?

    Americans are clearly ones who take control. We’re hearing about anti-body testing, massively building up ventilator capacity, expedited vaccines. Americans aren’t going to lie down and let their parents and grandparents die without a fight, like some plague-ridden medieval peasants.

    Yes, the economy is important, but an uncontrolled pandemic overwhelming all services would be worse for it than a clear plan of action on how to deal with it. Lockdown to limit spread, short-term help for businesses and individuals, ramp up of medical capability, anti-body testing so recovered people can get back to work.

    Trump is doing great, no need to stress about what this means for reelection right now.

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