British researcher scales back prediction on coronavirus death toll in light of social distancing measures

A British researcher whose work inspired lockdowns on both sides of the Atlantic is now confident that his gloomiest predictions won’t bear out.

Imperial College scientist Neil Ferguson told Britain’s Parliament on Wednesday that the U.K. should be able to cope with the peak of the coronavirus outbreak, which he predicted would result in no more than around 20,000 deaths if social distancing guidelines are followed, the Washington Examiner reported. A study led by Ferguson had predicted that to up to 500,000 people in the U.K. could perish in a worst-case scenario, but Ferguson believes that newly implemented lockdown policies will bring the fatalities drastically down.

Walking it back?

The Imperial College study, released on March 16, reportedly played a role in shaping quarantine policies that have been underway in America for days and are just getting started in Britain. The study made the alarming projection that up to 500,000 people in Britain, and over 2 million in the United States, could die from the virus if extensive measures are not taken to contain it.

In testimony to Parliament on Wednesday, Ferguson said that he is now confident that Britain will be able to absorb the worst of the COVID-19 outbreak with no more than about 20,000 deaths, the New Scientist reported. The apparent revision led to a backlash on social media, as many said that Ferguson’s “doomsday” model had misled governments to take drastic actions that would hurt their economies, according to the Examiner.

But in a Twitter thread, Ferguson said that he is not changing his original estimates, but rather, is simply more optimistic after the introduction of recent social distancing controls in Britain. The country began implementing lockdowns this week after initial criticism of a more relaxed approach.

“Without those controls, our assessment remains that the U.K. would see the scale of deaths reported in our study (namely, up to approximately 500 thousand),” Ferguson tweeted Thursday.

Coronavirus controversy

Ferguson also told Parliament that the virus is spreading faster than previously thought. This led some to conclude that he was downgrading the virus’s mortality rate. As the Daily Wire points out, a separate team of researchers at Oxford has claimed that about half the British population may already have the coronavirus. Consequently, they reason, the mortality rate of the virus is probably much lower than Imperial College’s darker projections.

However, as the Financial Times notes, Ferguson has said that the Oxford model is not “consistent with the observed data” and that a higher transmission rate, if anything, simply reinforces the need for social distancing.

This all comes amid a furious debate in the United States about how to balance public health concerns with economic ones — and whether Americans are putting too much power into the hands of epidemiologists in shaping policy. President Donald Trump has said that he is eager to let people get back to their normal lives by Easter. Meanwhile, Dr. Deborah Birx, from his team of coronavirus experts, pushed back Thursday against some of the gloomier projections from researchers.

“When people start talking about 20% of a population being infected, it’s very scary,” she said, according to Fox News. “But we don’t have data that matches that based on the [actual] experience.”

Needless to say, there is a great deal of confusion out there. But the bottom line is: nobody can predict how this will play out.

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