NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – Throughout the pandemic, some of the scientists on the frontlines of the battle against COVID-19 are here in New Mexico at Los Alamos National Lab. KRQE News 13 spoke with one of the lab’s senior scientists about how their data helps inform public policy.
“We’ve modeled many other diseases, but each disease or each outbreak is a little bit different, and also each region is a little bit different,” explained Nick Hengartner, Senior Scientist at Los Alamos National Lab.
The applied mathematician works with a group at LANL to study, track, and model how fast COVID-19 is spreading. The LANL team forecasts new infections, and now the impact of vaccinations and any new viral strains.
Before joining LANL in 2002, Hengartner was a professor at Yale University in the statistics department. “Over the last 10 to 15 years, I’ve worked on problems related to biology, including genomics and epidemiology,” he said.
Hengartner’s studies include the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, the outbreak of the Ebola virus in the 1980s, the epidemic of Chikungunya in the Caribbean, as well as Malaria in Kenya. When asked what makes the COVID-19 pandemic unique, Hengartner replied, “It has a pretty high transmissibility, much higher than the flu. It is hitting a naive population, that is, we have no resistance against this particular coronavirus.”
The high death rate for COVID-19 and the prevalence of asymptomatic carriers make this pandemic challenging to forecast, Hengartner said. Adequate testing is key, he added. “If I would have plenty of testing and I would know everybody who was sick, then indeed I would say, ‘yes I have made good predictions,'” said Hengartner. “But reality is, we don’t test enough. There are a number of asymptomatic and subclinical cases walking around.”
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LANL’s modeling team provides data to the government, which helps inform public policy. Scientists can help predict how reopening things like schools and the economy can impact viral spread in the community. “The one thing to remember is that the more people are sick, the faster the virus mutates,” said Hengartner. “It’s a numbers game. So if ten people are sick, there’s ten times more chance it mutates.”
Hengartner said New Mexico is at a crucial point with vaccine distribution as COVID-19 variants emerge. “Now it’s critical that we try to keep the cases as low as possible with the means at our disposal, which is still keep on with social isolation, keep on wearing masks, keep washing your hands,” he said. “Because if we do that now and it doesn’t mutate too fast and we get herd immunity, we actually have won the battle.”
Hengartner will join LANL’s biological physicists in a virtual talk about their disease forecasting and ‘Coexisting with COVID-19’ Wednesday night.