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“I was right”, says prof who predicted pandemic would play itself out in 70 days

An Israeli professor who made waves in early April for insisting that the coronavirus will play itself out after 70 days regardless of intervention levels says that he has been proved right, and that claims the virus will return in force for a second wave are just speculation.

“It’s very amusing that people talk about a second wave,” Isaac Ben-Israel, a prominent mathematician, chairman of Israel’s Space Agency, and a former general, told The Times of Israel. “How do they know there will be a second wave? And how do they know that it will come in the winter?”

However, a public health expert disputed Ben-Israel’s claims and said he “has no clue about epidemiology and public health.”

Ben-Israel said that since he crunched figures on the pandemic some six weeks ago and publicized his theory that COVID-19 peaks after about 40 days and declines to almost zero after 70 days, he has been vindicated — and concluded that the “hysteria” he sees around him is “as contagious as biological diseases.”

What is more, he is now arguing that surprise over the radically different mortality rates among infected people in different countries is misplaced, and is putting forward a counterintuitive claim.

“There is a natural assumption that fewer infections means fewer deaths but it’s not correct,” he said, arguing: “There is no explainable relationship between the number of people infected and the number of people who die. The ratio between deaths and infections differs sometimes by a factor of 100 or more between different countries.”

He asserted that mortality rates are unfathomable by any understood logic.

In a study published in Hebrew on April 8 and in English on April 16, Ben-Israel, head of the Security Studies program at Tel Aviv University and chairman of the National Council for Research and Development, claimed that the duration of a country’s COVID-19 outbreak is set and won’t vary based on what actions it takes.

On April 19 he wrote of Israel: “It turns out that the peak of the virus’s spread has been behind us for about two weeks now, and will probably fade within two more weeks.”

On May 2, just under two weeks later, the number of newly infected people per day dropped to under 100 for the first time since late March, and has remained below that figure.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has proclaimed that Israel’s coronavirus stats reflect a “major success,” but Ben-Israel disagrees, claiming that they just reflect the virus running its natural course.

He said: “This isn’t because Israel did anything special; the same thing happened in Taiwan where they had no lockdown.”

Many medical professionals have raised their eyebrows over Ben-Israel’s claims. The public health expert Nadav Davidovitch, asked to comment for this article, said he agrees with Ben-Israel’s sentiment that “hysteria” must be avoided but added: “He is an excellent scientist, yet he has no clue about epidemiology and public health.”

Ben-Israel doesn’t have a medical background, but claimed that simple mathematics can yield an understanding of the virus’s pattern. He argued that this pattern proves that lockdowns are “unnecessary no matter what,” and have been a needless disruption to life and a waste of money.

Ben-Israel has supported social distancing and hygiene measures but said that they only have a limited impact on infection rates. He argued that this is now shown to be true because he can’t draw a clear correlation between a country’s hygiene level and a significant change in the pattern of infection rates.

To prepare his theory early last month, he examined figures from countries that experienced coronavirus early, and concluded that it follows the same 40-day-to-peak and 70-day-to-resolution pattern no matter where it strikes, and no matter what measures governments impose to try to thwart it.

Ben-Israel told The Times of Israel it is now clear that “it follows the pattern everywhere.” He added: “I don’t have an explanation for this data but I think it’s very clear. It’s a universal pattern.”

But Davidovitch, director of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said that Ben-Israel is mistaken, and referred to Sweden, a country famous for shunning a mandatory lockdown, and commented: “He’s not correct. In Sweden there is still an outbreak.”

Ben-Israel didn’t specify a particular start date that he uses for his calculations, and said that initially, with regard to Israel, he counted from the first case. For other countries, however, he began counting when cases were “significant,” though he didn’t offer a clear quantification of what this means. He said it is reasonable to begin counting when a country passes 100 cases to assess his theory.

Sweden reached 100 cases on March 6, and 40 days later, on April 15, there were 482 new daily cases. This wasn’t the peak, and the level of new cases there rose and fell. The peak was 812 new cases on April 24, but on several days between April 8 and May 7 new daily cases exceeded 700, punctuated by several days with fewer than 350 new cases. On May 15, the 70-day mark, it still had 625 new daily cases.

By contrast, other countries appeared to closely follow Ben-Israel’s pattern. Belgium, which was hit hard by the virus, passed 100 cases on March 6. Day 40 was April 15, and was the peak in terms of daily new cases, with 2,454. Day 70 was May 3, when new cases were down to 1,389.

Israel peaked in terms of new cases on April 2. Ben-Israel said that initially, he treated the first case as day one in his calculations. This would mean that the peak came after 41 days. But if counting begins when the country saw 100 cases, just 21 days had elapsed by April 2.

Ben-Israel said that his preferred statistics are more technical and claimed they would show that his theory holds, even in the case of Sweden, but declined to share them.

Davidovitch said that even if Ben-Israel had been correct, it wouldn’t justify any critique of state policy, which was never aimed at speeding up the end of the outbreak, but rather about avoiding a sharp curve and limiting the number of cases. “Nobody thought that the lockdown measures were being taken to get rid of the virus,” he said. “They were about reducing infection rates and not overwhelming healthcare. If he thinks these measures were to get rid of the virus he’s mistaken.”

Regarding Ben-Israel’s claim that there is no explainable relationship between the number of people infected and the number of people who die, Davidovitch said this is “very simplistic” and that some aspects of the correlation are understood while others aren’t. “Nobody said it’s only about infection rates,” he said.

Davidovitch said that contrary to Ben-Israel’s claim, there is sound logic to the idea of a second wave, “as it happened in the past [with other viruses] and we’re very far from herd immunity.”

He added: “I’m not a prophet and I’ll be happy if there’s no second wave, but it’s not right to disregard this possibility.”