New Mexico announced its first four COVID-19 cases on March 11, 2020. But as early as late December 2019, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory had heard "there was a cluster of unknown diseases in China," Nick Hengartner says. A statistical modeling expert, Hengartner led the lab's Theoretical Biology and Biophysics group for more than seven years, where mathematical modeling and computational analysis focus on a variety of issues, such as the dynamics and treatment of viral disease, as well as immune system modeling.

"We're always looking for novelty and, early on, I think as early as the beginning of January, we started to try to figure out what was happening with Wuhan," he says.

Hengartner and colleagues will host a public virtual talk and discussion at 6 pm, Feb. 24, "Coexisting with COVID-19: Disease Forecasting and Science," as part of the Los Alamos National Laboratory Fellows Frontiers in Science series at the Bradbury Science Museum. Computational evolutionary biologist Will Fischer and biological physicist Judy Mourant will also be part of the event, which will address topics such as how scientists forecast disease; the impact vaccinations have on the spread of the virus; and the impact SARS-CoV-2 variants may have on transmission.

Throughout the pandemic, LANL's modeling has played a key role in the state's public health policies. Each week, the updated model forecasts six weeks of best- to worst-case scenarios for case counts, growth rates and deaths. Other models LANL created for public officials over the last year evaluated the impact school openings would have on the pandemic's trajectory.

During this week's talk—in which attendees also will have the opportunity to submit questions—"we'll be discussing a little bit what are the elements of those models and how they're used," Hengartner says, "so that people understand what information gets aggregated and condensed and what those models are telling us, and possibly even what accuracy those models had."

While LANL had similar models in place prior to COVID-19 that had been used to evaluate other diseases, it "took us a while" to adapt them to meet COVID-19, Hengartner says. Every disease is distinct and "the specific details of every disease matters."

The models, thus, are complex and individualized, incorporating particular mitigation efforts, such as testing and quarantining. "So all these factors are included," Hengartner says, and "are very useful to help provide information to decision makers so that they can, you know, play 'what if' scenarios, and also understand the impact of different actions that they're contemplating."

The models also forecast at the regional and county level, predicting case counts and hospitalizations, as well as projecting transmission rates based on counties' status under the public red-to-green framework.

Of late, the LANL models have begun incorporating vaccination, with last week's report—the most recent available at press time—indicating vaccination is lowering daily incidence by more than 20%.

That particular data point assumes the current vaccines in play—from Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech—have a 90% efficacy rate. An open question remains about how effective they and other vaccines will ultimately be against new strains of the coronavirus that creates the disease COVID-19.

"Now the question is: Well, what happens with those new variants? Does that [efficacy] go down? If so, how much does it go down? What's going to happen over time?" Hengartner says. And so part of the talk will focus on "the impact of evolution or the emergence of new strains in vaccination."

Hengartner's own work modeling diseases began with Ebola in the early 2000s and then moved on Malaria among children in Kenya. While there have been location-specific aspects to the modeling, such as the work in New Mexico, diseases, he says, "are not a local problem, they're a global problem" scientists model in the hopes of having "a positive impact."

As for COVID-19, while unknowns remain, Hengartner describes himself as "optimistic," observing that "we've learned to live with other diseases." After all, he adds, four other coronaviruses "are circulating in the human population" and we just call them the "sniffles" or a "cold."

His optimism, he says, also stems from knowing scientists have created a vaccine for HIV (created by LANL scientist Bette Korber and currently in clinical trials), a virus that mutates much more quickly than SARS-CoV-2.

"If we can get a vaccine for HIV, we can develop a vaccine for all those emerging variants, as well," he says. "And so, in the long run, we have the ability to at least get the [COVID-19] vaccines and, I believe what will happen is that the virus will adapt and our immune systems will adapt as well."


Frontiers in Science

"Coexisting with COVID19: Disease Forecasting and Science"

6 pm, Feb. 24

Free but requires advanced registration through: