A large-scale study has found that early interventions, such as social distancing and severe restrictions on peoples’ movement, have been critical in restraining the spread of coronavirus and have already saved tens of thousands of lives across Europe.
Scientists at Imperial College London studied interventions in 11 European countries, and concluded that they “have together had a substantial impact on transmission.” They estimate “that interventions across all 11 countries will have averted 59,000 deaths up to 31 March.”
The Imperial College researchers estimate that in Italy 38,000 deaths have been averted (as of March 31 that is nearly four times the number of deaths recorded); and in Spain 16,000 – compared to a situation in which restrictions had not been introduced. In Italy’s case, they say, “despite mounting pressure on health systems, interventions have averted a health care catastrophe.”
The researchers caution against relaxing restrictions, saying that “many more deaths will be averted through ensuring that interventions remain in place until transmission drops to low levels.” And they warn, “for most of the countries considered here it remains too early to be certain that recent interventions have been effective.”
The Imperial College group also believes that the number of positively identified cases of coronavirus is probably much smaller than the overall rate of infection. “We estimate that there have been many more infections than are currently reported,” they say, “due to the focus on testing in hospital settings rather than in the community.”
In Italy, their results suggest that 5.9 million people had been infected as of March 28, or 9.8% of the population. For Spain, they believe 15% of the population has been infected.
The study does warn that “many interventions have occurred only recently, and their effects have not yet been fully observed due to the time lag between infection and death.” Germany, for example, is estimated to have one of the lowest "attack rates" at 0.7%, with 600,000 people infected. But it is at an earlier stage in coronavirus spread than Spain or Italy.
Across the 11 countries, the researchers estimate an average "attack" or infection rate of 4.9%, which they say implies “that the populations in Europe are not close to herd immunity.”
But they strike a note of hope in their conclusions, saying: “we cannot say for certain that the current measures have controlled the epidemic in Europe; however, if current trends continue, there is reason for optimism.”