After six months of wearing face masks, being warned by cabinet ministers, Health Ministry officials and public health experts to maintain physical distancing, being prevented from flying abroad, feeling the pain of unemployment and hoping for an effective vaccine, many Israelis don’t envision the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Data scientist Prof. Mark Last of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) in Beersheba is more optimistic. Analyzing the available data regarding COVID-19 confirmed cases and deaths, he says that a further lockdown is not necessary if the current restrictions are maintained and there are no unusual events that spread the virus further.
“If we maintain the current restrictions, my model predicts that we are at the end of this peak, which should tail off at the end of August or the beginning of September. “Moreover, according to my calculations, we need 1.16 million people with antibodies in order to achieve herd immunity and we are very close to that number,” he added.
“If there is no unusual outbreak because of the return to school or trips to Uman in the Ukraine or mass weddings, then the infection rate will start dropping. While another lockdown would certainly reduce infection rates, there is no need at the present time since social and physical distancing is working to lower infection rates,” he declared.
Last, member of BGU’s software and information systems engineering department and director of the its Data Science Research Center, has been analyzing health data for the past 20 years. He presented his findings at the online AIME 2020: International Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Medicine on Wednesday.
Last compared Israel’s situation to other countries such as Italy, Greece and Sweden. “Our health system has managed to keep the percentage of deaths from COVID-19 to under 1% out of the total number of confirmed cases. Other countries had rates as high as 16% (Italy) and 14% (Sweden) at the beginning of the epidemic and have recently pushed them to around 3%,” he stated.
“The outlook for Israeli COVID-19 patients who reach intensive care units is not so sanguine – about an 80% mortality rate, according to his calculations. According to the World Health Organization, the global percentage is currently about 60%. Last’s previous research, unconnected to COVID-19, revealed that the normal rate is close to 20% mortality among those admitted to ICUs.
His model is based on the deaths attributed to COVID-19 and reported by the Health Ministry on a daily basis and an estimation of the total number of infected people, based on published results of serological tests rather than just on confirmed cases. There was a discrepancy between his model and the Health Ministry’s reported deaths until the ministry released a correction last week. Now, his model exactly predicts the death rate.
“We cannot know the actual number of cases of infection unless we test the entire population every day. Initial serological tests indicate the ratio of confirmed cases to actual cases is about 1 to 10. Using those numbers, we now have slightly above one million people with antibodies in Israel and we need at least 1.2 million,” he explains. Therefore, he is cautiously optimistic about the COVID-19 epidemic in Israel. “We are heading in the right direction, but it is important not to relax our restrictions or get overconfident,” he warned.
The four-day AIME 2020 conference, hosted virtually by the University of Minnesota, ends on Friday. As previous AIME conferences (from Pavia in 1985 to Poznan in 2019), it has been a unique opportunity to present significant theoretical, methodological and applied results related to the application of artificial intelligence in medicine.