Friday 27 March 2020 12:04 am

We need Alan Turing’s innovative mindset to make it through coronavirus

Alan Turing designed the curiously named Bombe machine during the early stages of World War II. A forerunner to the computer, the Bombe was able to rapidly intercept messages, quickly decode them, and thereby allow allied forces to react within hours rather than weeks.

Stories from the world of codebreaking today bring to vivid life the speed of action required in times of crippling need. This global pandemic is one such moment, where a Turing-style application of inventive skill and intellect should be given urgent consideration.

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Dealing with the health crisis is foremost in the minds of governments around the world. From the start, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has recommended that everyone needs to be tested. But in the UK, Italy and the US, testing is being directed toward the worst of the symptomatic cases. 

There is, however, a third way that ought to be considered — one that potentially both yields benefits for ongoing health shock, and also addresses the the potential for an economic coma 

Dealing with the twin, complex and frightening narratives brought about by a pandemic which presently has no known cure and an economic threat bigger than the financial crisis of 2008 will require strong and intelligent leadership. 

Concurrently — and this is where Turing style genius needs to come into play — as well as tackling the health crisis, governments need to act to protect social cohesion, the equilibrium of the markets and the health of businesses great and small.

It is worth considering the following. Most countries are implementing strict social distancing measures, to slow the rate of infection and the demand for intensive care beds.

If properly enforced, any measure of social distancing decreases the flow of people infected by Covid-19, and so it follows that it flattens the demand for healthcare. Numerical analyses based on standard and sophisticated epidemiology models predict that only strict social distancing measures can reduce the spread of Covid-19 in a way that the capacity of national health systems is sufficient to cope with the demand.

At present, this is the best policy to implement. The spread of Covid-19 will not go down sufficiently quickly unless we all understand that the behaviour of each one of us, if irresponsible, will create direct costs to the most vulnerable. 

However, a close reading of the information that is available to the public presents governments with the following challenges. First, health policies currently being implemented are based on incomplete and biased data. For example, most of the infections seem to be generated by asymptomatic individuals. Those individuals are less contagious relative to symptomatic patients, but as they are so much more numerous, they prove to be the most responsible for the rise in infections. 

If the numbers that have been estimated in different studies are correct, it is likely that, even with strict social distancing policies, the peak of the contagion curve will be much higher than expected because those policies have been implemented too late in the day.

Second, strict social distancing may, in the short term, decrease the spread of the virus so drastically that the capacity of the health system can indeed cope with the demand. But we may see the drawbacks once the restrictions are lifted, with society still very vulnerable to Covid-19, thereby leading to likely new waves of infection.

Lastly, it is not feasible to adhere to strict social distancing for any great length of time. The societal impact will be too great to bear. 

With this mind, what further measures might be taken? By flattening the infection curve, the ensuing suppression offers time between bouts of infections to gather data on the prevalence of the virus in the population, so that proper surveillance strategies can be conducted when the period of suppression is lifted.  

Managing these waves of infection as a form of “intelligent triage: offers the greatest opportunities of avoiding greater structural damage to the economy, particularly the most vulnerable in the population such as renters and mortgage holders with little cash-on-hand, zero-hour contract workers, and smaller businesses with little to no cash reserves.

The only way to develop such strategies is to collect reliable data. This means countries should test a representative sample of the population, independent of their symptoms, while recording socio, economical, demographic and locational characteristics at the household level. 

With the collection of this data, we can then use standard statistical methods to infer the household characteristics that are more important to decode the economic and contagious enigma of Covid-19 to develop effective surveillance and social-economic strategies.

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Covid-19 can only be defeated by mobilising experts — and not just those in medical research. The development of simple-to-use serological tests, and eventually the Covid-19 vaccine, are priorities, but it is also crucial to collect better data, to develop better containment strategies, and to support all different disruptions in our society that this Covid-19 crisis is creating. 

In wartime, governments spent freely and put to use every brain and resource, such as Turing’s, they had to prevent disaster. For this crisis, we need the open-minded willingness to try for those sometimes-elusive solutions that Turing and his team of mathematicians and technicians provided so brilliantly. 

Andrea Galeotti is professor of economics at London Business School.

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