UMass Amherst Biostatistician Lends Expertise to White House Coronavirus Task Force

Leading infectious disease modeling researcher is among global experts to help inform public health response to COVID-19
Nicholas Reich
Nicholas Reich

AMHERST, Mass. – A University of Massachusetts Amherst biostatistician who directs the UMass-based Flu Forecasting Center of Excellence was invited by the White House Coronavirus Task Force to participate Wednesday morning in a coronavirus modeling webinar.

The four-hour, virtual gathering will include 20 of the world’s leading infectious disease and pandemic forecasting modelers, from researchers at Harvard, Johns Hopkins and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the U.S. to those based at institutions in England, Hong Kong, South Africa and the Netherlands.

According to the White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator Dr. Charles Vitek, “This webinar is designed to highlight for the Task Force what modeling can tell us regarding the potential effects of mitigation measures on the coronavirus outbreak. The unprecedented speed and impact of the nCoV-19 epidemic requires the best-informed public health decision-making we can produce.”

Nicholas Reich, associate professor in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences, heads a flu forecasting collaborative that has produced some of the world’s most accurate models in recent years. He and postdoctoral researcher Thomas McAndrew have been conducting weekly surveys of more than 20 infectious disease modeling researchers to assess their collective expert opinion on the trajectory of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. The researchers and modeling experts design, build and interpret models to explain and understand infectious disease dynamics and the associated policy implications in human populations.

Reich is co-author of a new study in the Annals of Internal Medicine that calculates that the median incubation period for COVID-19 is just over five days and that 97.5 percent of people who develop symptoms will do so within 11.5 days of infection. The incubation period refers to the time between exposure to the virus and the appearance of the first symptoms.

The study’s lead author is UMass Amherst biostatistics doctoral alumnus Stephen Lauer, a former member of the Reich Lab and current postdoctoral researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The researchers examined 181 confirmed cases with identifiable exposure and symptom onset windows to estimate the incubation period of COVID-19. They conclude that “the current period of active monitoring recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [14 days] is well supported by the evidence.”

Last fall, Reich received a grant of up to $3 million over the next five years from the CDC to operate the Flu Forecasting Center of Excellence at UMass Amherst, one of two in the nation the CDC has designated.

The center’s mission is to identify new methods and data sources to sharpen the accuracy and improve communication of seasonal and pandemic flu forecasts.