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The governments of many countries base decisions to introduce or loosen restrictions on these forecasts.

But how much are they worth? Who can be believed, and who is mostly wrong? The answer is often a matter of life and death because decisions made by governments today affect what will happen in a few weeks. The COVID-19 Forecasting Centre (European Covid-19 Forecast Hub), a joint project of the Centre for Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Diseases and the European Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), can help resolve uncertainties.

The Center encourages teams which are involved in predicting the evolution of the epidemic in Europe to send in their analysis and forecasts. These concern the number of expected new infections and deaths in the next four weeks.

Every week these forecasts can then be compared with reality. On the basis of the forecasts submitted, an average forecast (EuroCOVIDhub-ensemble) is produced, which reflects the trend of all the analyses.

The site is open to all, the results are given in a standardized form so that they can be easily compared.

Development forecasts for COVID-19 in Poland

For our country the forecasts for the coming weeks are not optimistic.

Out of the 15 models, the vast majority (13) show that the number of infections has been increasing, all also predict an increasing number of deaths due to COVID-19.

Out of the three Polish models - ICM-agentModel, MIMUW-StochSEIR, MOCOS-agent1 - only the latter predicts a slowdown in the epidemic growth and a decrease in the number of infections in the coming week.

Standardized predictions are a prelude to further studies.

- Our aim is to create a statistical tool to compare different responses to the pandemic,” Paolo Giudici, Professor of statistics at the University of Pavia, told us. “We analyze the number of infections in many European countries and, based on the current number of infections, we make a forecast of how the situation will look like tomorrow, next week, next month. We consider the restrictions that are in place in different countries. This can tell us how effective different counter-pandemic strategies are.

A mathematical model developed at the University of Pavia (UNIPV-BayesINGARCHX) examines, among other things, the impact of government interventions on reducing infections.

“So far, our model has proved to be the best of all forecasts for Italy, and it has also predicted developments in Germany, France and Spain quite well," boasts Paolo Giudici.

In Italy and Spain, the epidemic is slightly relieved, mainly thanks - according to the scientist – to weather because southern Europe is already in full spring. Much worse epidemic situation prevails in France, the number of infections has been strongly increasing also in Germany.

How best to suppress the epidemic

During the first wave of the pandemic last spring, all countries acted in a similar way - they introduced a hard lockdown. Now we can observe a mix of various strategies: each country has its own policy, the restrictions are more or less limited, and they affect different areas of the economy. It is difficult to say which of the decisions has the greatest impact on the development of the epidemic.

- It is relatively easy to assess how well a given country is doing in suppressing the epidemic, but it is more difficult to determine which restrictions have had the best effect - says Prof. Giudici. According to the scientist, Europe needs a good research tool, which will allow to predict how individual restrictions - e.g. closing schools, offices, shopping malls or mobility restrictions - affect the number of infections and deaths, and also the state of the economy.

Interestingly, Prof. Giudici is convinced that culture and regional variation will prove to be one of the parameters. Similar restrictions in different countries may have different effects.

- This was not the case in the first wave of infections. Then, basically, Europeans everywhere were equally subject to restrictions, although they were very strict - recalls the scientist. - Now we observe that people react differently to restrictions. In some countries respect for the law is higher, but in others, citizens do not trust the authorities, so they do not listen to them and do not submit to regulations.

The COVID-19 pandemic showed that the line between countries coping and those failing the test is not drawn by the wealth of the country or even the state of health care. Some countries, such as Taiwan, Vietnam and New Zealand, were able to suppress the wave of infections to almost zero. Some, such as South Korea and Finland, were not immune to recurrent outbreaks, but kept the infections at a relatively low level that did not overburden the health care system. Nor did very tight restrictions always work; in Peru, for example, despite a tough lockdown, the infection curve exploded.

How to encode in mathematical models the strategies of different countries so that their impact on the course of the epidemic - the number of infections, deaths, as well as economic consequences - can then be objectively assessed and compared? This is still an unsolved problem.

This will be done in a research project called CoronaNet, joined by the Periscope group of 32 universities and research institutes in Europe, including the London School of Economics, Karolinska Institute, the Ghent University, the Delft University of Technology and the University of Pavia.

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And once the pandemic is over, how will we assess the impact and damage? How will we develop a plan of action? As part of the Periscope project, the best scientists from European universities and research institutes as well as experts from think tanks are involved in this task. “Gazeta Wyborcza" cooperates with them. The Periscope project is funded by the European Commission under the Horizon2020 program.

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