The mathematical model Pakistan is using to predict the course of COVID-19

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed relief that the number of COVID-19 cases in his country were lower than forecast. (AP Photo)
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Updated 22 May 2020

The mathematical model Pakistan is using to predict the course of COVID-19

  • Forecasts are reevaluated every week, expert tells Arab News  
  • Officials predict cases will not peak until mid-June

ISLAMABAD: In a televised address on May 15, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed relief that the number of COVID-19 cases in his country were lower than forecast. “As per our predictions, by May 14 Pakistan was expected to have 52,695 cases and 1,324 deaths,” he told the nation.

According to government statistics, however, the official figure at that point was slightly over 37,000 infections, while 803 people had died. “Thankfully, we are still below projections,” Khan said.

Those projections are determined by a team of scientists and doctors. One of the former is Ahsan Ahmed. He and his team, who are based throughout Pakistan as well as abroad, use the “Susceptible-Exposed-Infectious-Recovered (SEIR)” mathematical model to predict the development of the COVID-19 outbreak in Pakistan.

The SEIR model divides the population into four categories: Those who are susceptible to the virus and could potentially catch the disease; the exposed — people who might have the virus but show no symptoms; the infectious — active cases; and the recovered.
The same model has been used successfully in the past to understand the outbreak of Ebola, SARS and Zika. It was also used in Wuhan, China, to assess how COVID-19 would spread.

Ahmed told Arab News over the phone from Islamabad that his team is “meticulous” when extrapolating data from across the country, ensuring that there are few if any, inaccuracies. 

Their estimates are revised weekly, taking into account the actual numbers, and presented to Pakistian’s National Command and Control Centre (NCOC), which is tasked with devising a strategy to counter the pandemic in the country. A private data-modeling company in Karachi called Love For Datam and officials from UNICEF are also providing technical support. Love for Data was unavailable for comment when contacted by Arab News.

When comparing official figures with forecasted ones, Ahmed explained, “The trend we are noticing is that they are pretty much aligned.” 

Both Ahmed and Atta-ur-Rehman, the additional secretary at the Ministry of National Health Services, Regulations and Coordination, declined to comment on forecasts for the near future, explaining that those figures would only be disclosed to the NCOC. However, Minister for Science and Technology Fawad Chaudhry has tweeted that Pakistan is expected to see an increase in COVID-19 cases up until mid-June.

Independent forecasters predict the same. Jan Fiete Grosse-Oetringhaus and Zafar Yasin, who are affiliated with the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland, have done their own modeling using the SEIR model. Yasin agrees with Chaudhry that Pakistan will likely reach its peak of daily cases by the middle of next month. 

By then, he estimates, the number of confirmed cases could be between 200,000 and 350,000 or more, and deaths between 4,000 and 7,000.

But Yasin is also concerned that there has been a mismatch between Pakistan’s forecasted figures and its official ones so far, considering the usual accuracy of the SEIR model.

“In Pakistan, it seems that the confirmed cases (based on model predictions) should be 80,000 by now, but we are in the range of 43,000,” Yasin told Arab News. “When the same model was used for different countries in Europe, it gave reliable results, but for Pakistan, it is showing a different trend.”

One reason for this discrepancy, Yasin believes, could be that Pakistan is not carrying out enough tests per capita. At this point, the country should be testing between 40,000-50,000 people daily, he said. As of May 20, Pakistan was testing around 13,000 people per day in a population of more than 207 million.

Yasin explained that the fewer people are being tested, the less accurate the SEIR model will be, and the less will be known about the actual number of people infected.

Earlier this month, Science Magazine published a study by international scientists tracking the spread of COVID-19, which estimated that for every known case there are five to ten people who are infected without knowing it.

In his May 15 address, the prime minister also claimed that — because the number of COVID-19 cases in Pakistan was below forecasted figures — hospitals still had space to treat COVID-19 patients, and the pressure on the healthcare system was not that great.  

But health officials and frontline healthcare workers disagree. Even if government figures are below those forecasted, they say, hospitals are already almost at full capacity with patients suffering from COVID-19.

Dr. Nasir Azim Kakar, a pulmonologist at the Fatima Jinnah Chest Hospital in Pakistan’s poorest province, Balochistan, told Arab News that he and his colleagues receive a large number of patients daily.

“If earlier we were examining five patients a day, now we are examining three times that,” he said. “These days, when we receive patients, we face a major shortage of ICU beds, ventilators, and a shortage of staff, especially for the ICU.”

  • With additional reporting by Nazar ul Islam


Trump calls for investigation into allegations of voter fraud in Minnesota

Updated 29 September 2020

Trump calls for investigation into allegations of voter fraud in Minnesota

  • Right-wing website claims activists linked to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s campaign are involved in illegal ‘ballet harvesting’

US: US President Donald Trump on Monday called on the Justice Department to investigate allegations of illegal voting activity by activists linked to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s campaign.

The claims were made in a story published on Sunday by right-wing website Project Veritas, the founder and CEO of which is Conservative activist James O’Keefe. It alleges that workers with connections to Omar were involved in illegal “ballot harvesting” in Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District, which she has represented since 2019, and that some voters were paid to vote for Democratic candidates.

Ballot harvesting refers to a practice in which a third party collects completed absentee ballots from voters’ homes and drops them off at polling stations. This is not illegal in many states, but there are often limits on how many ballots one person can harvest.

In a message posted on Twitter, Trump said: “This is totally illegal. Hope that the U.S. Attorney in Minnesota has this, and other of her many misdeeds, under serious review??? If not, why not???”

The Project Veritas story, which was published on the same day as the New York Times published details of Trump’s tax returns, includes details of a series of videos it said was posted on Snapchat in early July by Liban Mohammed, the brother of Minneapolis City Council member Jamal Osman. In them, he talks about harvesting ballots to help his brother in an Aug. 11 city council election.

He said, in a mix of English and Somali: “Money is everything. Money is the king in this world. If you got no money, you should not be here, period. You know what i am saying? Money is everything and a campaign is managed by money … numbers do not lie. Numbers do not lie.

“You can see my car is full. All these here are absentee ballots … all of these are for Jamal Osman. Look, look. Just today we got 300 (ballots) for Jamal Osman.”

O’Keefe claimed that the extent of the ballot harvesting was astounding.

“Ballot harvesting is real and it has become a big business,” he said. “Our investigation into this ballot-harvesting ring demonstrates clearly how these unscrupulous operators exploit the elderly and immigrant communities — and have turned the sacred ballot box into a commodities trading desk.

“We are showing Americans what is really going on in one of our great cities — but, it's not me saying — we have the operators on tape saying it all themselves.”

Last month, Omar won the 5th Congressional District’s Democratic Primary and will face Republican Lacy Johnson in the Nov. 3, 2020 General Election. The district — which was previously held by Keith Ellison, who is now Minnesota’s Attorney General — is overwhelmingly Democratic and Omar is expected to easily win.

Omar’s office did not respond to a request for a comment about the Project Veritas story. Newsweek reported that a spokesperson for the congresswoman stated that Mohammed does not work for her.

In response to Trump’s tweet, Omar wrote: “Years of tax evasion … Trying to rush through the confirmation of a right-wing extremist Supreme Court nominee … Lies and inaction that have lead to the preventable deaths of 200,000 people. This is what we’re up against. Stay focused.”

Minnesota is one of several “battleground states” in the upcoming presidential election, in which the result is expected to be very close. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the state with 46.4 percent of the vote to Trump’s 44.9 percent — a difference of only 44,593 votes.