MIT’s AI paints a dire picture if social distancing is relaxed too soon

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According to an AI system built by MIT to predict the spread of COVID-19, relaxing social distancing rules too early would be catastrophic.

Social distancing measures around the world appear to be having the desired effect. In many countries, the “curve” appears to be flattening with fewer deaths and hospital admissions per day.

No healthcare system in the world is prepared to handle a vast number of its population hospitalised at once. Even once relatively trivial ailments can become deadly if people cannot access the care they need. Until a vaccine is found, that’s why maintaining social distancing is vital even as lockdown measures ease.

With the curve now flattening, the conversation is switching to how lockdowns can be lifted safely. Contact-tracing apps, which keep track of everyone an individual passes and alerts them to self-isolate if they’ve been near anyone subsequently diagnosed with COVID-19, are expected to be key in easing measures.

MIT’s AI corroborates what many health officials are showing in their figures; that we should now be seeing new cases of COVID-19 levelling off in many countries.

“Our results unequivocally indicate that the countries in which rapid government interventions and strict public health measures for quarantine and isolation were implemented were successful in halting the spread of infection and prevent it from exploding exponentially,” the researchers wrote.

However, the situation could be similar to Singapore where lockdown measures almost completely flattened the curve before an early return to normal resulted in a massive resurgence in cases.

“Relaxing or reversing quarantine measures right now will lead to an exponential explosion in the infected case count, thus nullifying the role played by all measures implemented in the US since mid-March 2020.”

The team from MIT trained their AI using public data on COVID-19’s spread and how each government implemented various measures to contain it. It was trained on known data from January to March, and then was found to accurately predict the spread in April so far.

While the researchers’ work focused on COVID-19 epidemics in the US, Italy, South Korea, and Wuhan, there’s no reason to think that relaxing social distancing rules anywhere else in the world at this stage would be any less dire.

You can find the full paper from MIT here.

(Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash)

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