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April 29, 2020

External Brains Team

COVID-19 Foresight: Making Your Bet on the Future

We're all placing bets on COVID-19 outcomes. The bets might be personal, they might involve our businesses, or our 401k accounts. We all want to know whether the COVID-19 emergency will fade away in a few months, or whether it will be disastrously disruptive for the next two years. If we had the answer we'd make more robust decisions and probably come out ahead (at least compared to everyone else).

But given the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., what's the information you need to populate your foresight framework? We suggest one answer to that question in the Foresight section in our COVID-19 External Brain.

Here's a screenshot of the layout of the Foresight section, with each heading pointing to relevant discussion, news stories, and more. We see them as key variables for understanding the future of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., and by association the future of the economic and societal ramifications of the pandemic.

image of covid19 external brain

So where do we stand? Our 4/25 summary (last item in the list in the screenshot above) makes the following points:

  • Agreement on an Evidence-Based Strategy: No change. Expert analysis continues to diverge along the two lines discussed in the thought above, with radically different COVID-19 response implications.
  • Existence of a COVID-19 strategy for the U.S.: Little evidence of such a strategy to date. The federal government has seemingly stepped back from developing a strategy and has thrown that ball into the hands of 50 state governors. Governors are developing their own and often very different strategies.
  • Infectiousness of COVID-19: Unclear. The expert discussion on this topic continues to range widely, from COVID-19 being easily airborne from person to person, to COVID-19 being quite difficult to transfer from person to person.  
  • Magnitude of COVID-19 testing: Grossly insufficient. There are some signs of progress, including a day of 300,000+ tests in the U.S. recently. But it's not clear whether this reflects a longer-term trend. There continues to be a lot of discussion of insufficient testing at the state level, while the federal response seeks to discount testing problems.
  • Accuracy of COVID-19 testing: Problematic. As more testing is done and as serological testing for antibodies gets underway, the implications of poor testing accuracy is getting more attention. Evidence this week suggests significant problems with the accuracy of many of the tests coming to market.
  • COVID-19 antibodies and immunity: Still unknown. Multiple stories from WHO and elsewhere noting that there is still no solid evidence. 
  • The beginnings of herd immunity: At least a possibility. Limited serological testing in the U.S. suggests that a substantially larger fraction of the population may have been exposed to the virus than previously thought. This at least creates the possibility that herd immunity could kick in more quickly than previously assumed.
  • The viability of contact tracing in the U.S.: Still unknown. There was more discussion of contact tracing in the U.S. last week, but uncertainties surrounding the practicality of contact tracing in light of inadequate testing and other variables remain larger. 
  • Existence of COVID-19 treatments: Still unknown. Doctors are urging patients to be very careful about taking one of the widely cited potential treatments, hydroxychloroquine.
  • Existence of a vaccine: No change.
  •  Evidence of things going wrong in the U.S.: Too early. With states just beginning to go their own ways with respect to COVID-19 strategies, it's too early to see the implications of those decisions. Obviously a lot has already gone wrong in the United States with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic, but that is not the focus of this element of the Foresight topic.
  •  Accounting for globalization: Nothing to add. 

When you put all of this together, the Foresight picture for COVID-19 in the U.S. seems murky indeed. The U.S. could get lucky, or we could be in for a bad summer and fall. The uncertainties surrounding the Foresight variables are large; in most cases, they're much larger than they should be at this point in the pandemic. 

The uncertainties will narrow, making it possible to make better bets. To do that, you need to be thinking about the U.S. response as a system, with these 10 (or so variables) making up that system (yes, one could put together a great systems diagram, but we haven't. It wouldn't add a lot of predictive value at this point, but it certainly could in the future).

Get our weekly foresight updates!

Our free weekly foresight video, prepared by Mark Trexler, Ph.D., environmental futures expert, assembles both good and bad news into a coherent status report of where the pandemic appears headed in the U.S.

Bonus: you'll get online access to our COVID-19 External Brain!

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