How do you handle the unknown?
Everyone from world leaders to ordinary people struggled with that question as the coronavirus pandemic spread rapidly around the world. Initial assessments pegged the impact anywhere from a bad flu season to millions of deaths.
“We have known about coronaviruses for years. They make up 15% to 20% of the common colds, but this one is its own new pathogen,” says Doug Fullam, director of life and health modeling at AIR Worldwide, a Verisk company. “There is a lot of uncertainty about that. How quickly does it spread from person to person? What is the fatality ratio, and how does that evolve from country to country?”
To help answer those questions and to aid governments, businesses, insurers and others in making decisions, the company launched its complimentary Verisk COVID-19 Projection Tool in mid-April. That release came amid widespread uncertainty about the actual impact due to limited testing for the virus and significant underreporting of cases.
“We wanted to give a real-time assessment of it,” Fullam says.
In late April, when worldwide cases were reported at roughly three million and U.S. cases were tallied at around one million on Worldometer, the Verisk model was estimating total worldwide cases at around 20.8 million, based on the low scenario, and U.S. cases from 5.5 million to 8.3 million. The tool’s three-week forward projection forecasted total U.S. cases at nearly 6.2 million to 11.5 million by the beginning of the second week of May.
The differences between those numbers highlight the fact that it’s very difficult to get an accurate picture of how many people are infected during an epidemic and particularly in the earlier stages. Often, the actual extent can’t be known until later on. In the current pandemic, that’s due to a lack of available tests and because many people showed mild or no symptoms and were never tested.
“There is substantial underreporting from this event,” Fullam says. “In an epidemiologist’s world, underreporting is a fact of life. We saw a need to highlight what is actually happening and provide people with a better perspective on how many cases we’re talking about…and what that might be in the coming weeks.”
Another source of uncertainty is that, unlike hurricanes or earthquakes, human efforts can affect the course and severity of a pandemic.
“When we respond as a society, we change the path of the pandemic. Social distancing affects the way it spreads within a population which affects the end result,” Fullam says. “Pandemics, especially in the early part of the outbreak, will grow very rapidly. If we respond to the event—we start social distancing, we wash our hands more often, we isolate and quarantine people, all of those moving parts—we can affect the size.”
The Verisk COVID-19 tool arose from the company’s earlier efforts in pandemic modeling, which began in 2013 with the release of a flu model. Verisk later added models for the virus family that includes Ebola and Marburg, as well as a different strain of coronavirus. Verisk now models nine pathogen families.
As of late April, there was reason for muted optimism about the spread of the pandemic.
“The good news here is that the curve is bending,” Fullam says. AIR expected a late April to early May slowdown in the spread. “After [those] four weeks is a bit of a question mark, as we are starting to see some of the states starting to reopen their economies.”
Origami Risk has added online pandemic mapping and other tools to its risk management information system to enable employers to identify and prioritize locations affected by the crisis; to track critical COVID-19 data, such as testing statuses and quarantine dates; and to prepare location-specific disaster notifications.
RiskGenius, which uses AI to evaluate policy language, added an emerging risk checklist specific to the pandemic to help carriers assess and quantify potential coronavirus exposures and to comply with rapidly changing legislative mandates. While most commercial property policies include virus exclusions and requirements for physical damage or loss to property, RiskGenius estimates that a majority of commercial casualty policies do not include virus exclusions.