Network scientist warns worst of coronavirus still ahead

“In the coming months, I will most likely become infected by COVID-19,” Albert-László Barabási stated in his Facebook post published yesterday. The post was shared by thousands since Barabási is considered a reliable source when it comes to networking. The famed Hungarian physicist, originally from Csíkkarcfalva/Cârța, is best known for his work in the research of network theory. He argues that the coronavirus cannot be stopped anymore, only slowed down, which is a must to avoid overloading the healthcare system.

“What matters is that we understand that the virus cannot be stopped. It will spread regardless of how many countries close the border and how many flights are canceled or how many schools are closed. When there are ten patients in the hospital, there must be hundreds of infected individuals in the community. Many never learn that they carry the disease because they never develop symptoms. But they spread the virus nevertheless.”

Barabási goes on to explain that we are already past the point where quarantine can stop COVID-19. Ebola was successfully halted this way, but the coronavirus is too contagious and has reached too many people for traditional quarantine and contact tracing to be effective. It is also very unlikely that we will have a vaccine against it ready this year.

If unstoppable, why halt life as we know it? Why close schools and why push the economy into a recession?

“For one reason – to slow it down. If we succeed at that, we may be able to save our parents and grandparents, and in some cases ourselves as well,” Barabási replies.

The network scientist writes that even though he and his workmates have known since February that the world would come to a halt in mid-March, it was still hard for him to imagine it actually happening and deal with the situation; and the hard part is still to come, he warns.

All the models predict that half of the population will become infected within one year. In the absence of measures to fight the spread at the height, however, there won’t be enough hospital capacity for everyone in need. “And the summit is frighteningly close. If we do nothing, within weeks tens of thousands will be infected. We have seen in Italy what happens when a society loses control over the virus. Doctors are forced to decide over life and death, saving some patients, and letting others succumb to the disease,” he argues.

Barabási then explains that he is most worried about the elderly, who are most vulnerable to the disease and calls upon people to help them remain isolated and to be particularly attentive not to take the disease home.

In 1999, Albert László Barabási introduced scale-free networks and introduced the Barabási–Albert model to explain how these networks apply to natural, technological and social systems in our daily life today. Barabási is also the Founding President of the Network Science Society.

Featured photo: Albert-László Barabási and Katalin Keresztes, the scientist’s mother. (Source: Barabási’s personal Facebook page).

Author: Blanka Székely