Coronavirus in SA: ‘Significant progress’ on modelling - but, for now, we will not know what it shows

The Gauteng government deployed a team of health workers to the Stjwetla informal settlement to test people for Covid-19.
The Gauteng government deployed a team of health workers to the Stjwetla informal settlement to test people for Covid-19.
Alet Pretorius, Gallo Images

The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) has confirmed that groups commissioned to model and project the spread of the coronavirus in South Africa have made significant progress.

But, for now, we won’t know what the projections show.

"We have made significant progress. There is a call today with the modelling groups. Model synthesis and final models will then be shared with the national Department of Health (NDoH) later this week, [but] until sign off from NDoH and [the National Command Council], we cannot release it," said NICD spokesperson Sinenhlanhla Jamoh on Wednesday.

Projections and modelling have played a crucial role in informing the response and procurement of emergency medical supplies as well as the building of additional hospital bed capacities in countries around the world.

News24 previously reported that President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration took swift action to declare a national state of disaster earlier this month after projections showed that anywhere between 87 900 and 351 000 people could die as a result of contracting Covid-19, if government response was slow or inadequate.

These early, rudimentary projections were based on a variety of factors, including the annual ‘normal’ flu infection rate, which published studies have found affects around 10 million South Africans every year.

Teams of experts were assembled, headed by, among others, Dr Harry Moultrie of the NICD, to produce updated projections and models that included a wider range of factors.

Since then Ramaphosa and his cabinet have put in place a full lockdown for 21 days, increased testing capacity at public laboratories significantly and taken extensive steps to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus in the country.

These steps were intended to slow and limit the spread of the virus and extend the infection rate over a longer period of time – known as “flattening the curve”.

Many have cautioned against placing reliability on projections and models. It is simply not known how the virus may spread in different circumstances, many of which could be unique to South Africa.

Alex Welte, a research professor at, and the former director of, the Centre of Excellence for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis at Stellenbosch University, said in an article written for GroundUp that anyone who claims to know the infection and mortality rates of Covid-19 were “either deluded or dishonest”.

“Those of us trying to model the Covid-19 pandemic should try to be humble; there is more we don’t know than we do. Anyone who claims to know what the infection or mortality rates are for this disease is either deluded or dishonest,” Welte wrote.

“But, with time-tested scientific analysis, some things are predictable: on 17 April, after three weeks of lockdown, the sun will rise in Cape Town at 7:10am, and we will still be at the start of a Covid-19 outbreak,” Welte continued.

READ: ALEX WELTE | Covid-19: What happens after the lockdown?

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