Prof. Mihail Konstantinov: Decrease in the number of new Covid-19 patients will come in late April

The mortality rate in Bulgaria is significantly lower than in Western Europe

Bulgaria compares favourably to other European countries in tackling coronavirus spread. We are handling the situation two to four times better than the global average. The number of infections is two times lower, while the number of deaths is four times lower as ratios per one million people. Bulgarians are a pretty disciplined nation and seem to grasp the seriousness of the situation. We have turned out to be much more disciplined than the Italians and the Spanish, who underestimated the threat.

Prof. Konstantinov, how does Bulgaria stack up against the rest of Europe in terms of handling the Covid-19 pandemic? What do mathematical models say?

Bulgaria compares favourably to other European countries in this regard, but we need to elaborate on what that means exactly. We are handling the situation two to four times better than the global average. The number of infections is two times lower, while the number of deaths is four times lower. Keep in mind that these figures are presented as ratios per one million people, not total numbers of infections and deaths. In terms of Europe, we are doing 10 to 100 times better. There are countries in dire straits, such as Italy and Spain. But the numbers are constantly changing. We are doing 150 times better than certain countries as far as deaths are concerned. Let us hope that the trend persists.

To what do you attribute these results?

I think the reasons are pretty clear - as it turns out, we are a pretty disciplined nation. Just look at how deserted the streets of Sofia are. There may be some grumbling and discontentment, but by and large people are complying with the measures that have been introduced. Bulgarians deserve praise for that. And the National Operative Staff and the government should be commended for the timely implementation of these measures. Another important factor may be our genes. There are historical examples of entire Bulgarian villages surviving the plague. The numbers do not lie. We are doing up to 100 times better than Western Europe and the US, where the situation is also rapidly deteriorating.

What contributed to the catastrophic developments in Italy? How do you explain the high mortality rate there? An array of factors has been discussed.

There are several reasons. First - a large number of people contracted the virus during that infamous UEFA Champions League game played in Milan. Second - at the end of January and the beginning of February Chinese tourists, from Wuhan no less, were crisscrossing northern Italy by bus. And last but not least, Italians are people of revelry, and they feel untouchable.

Were they too late with taking mitigation measures?

Without a doubt. We were right on time with our measures.

How do you explain the complicated situation in the US?

I have been to New York and I can honestly tell you I do not know if anyone can make the people there disciplined. Even if they are following guidelines now, the contagion is advanced enough.

What do mathematical models show?

Let me give you a simple example. Imagine that you are driving. You are pressing down the gas pedal and the vehicle is picking up speed. Then you realise you are headed straight to hell and you have to stop. What do you do? Of course, you decelerate. In other words, there is a peak point beyond which the speed starts to go down. The infected and the dead are the number of kilometres you have travelled. The idea is to not allow the number to soar, and eventually for it to stall. The mathematical models show that the process is following what we call a logistic curve, just like every other epidemic has in the past. We went to the trouble of checking how SARS and other viruses behaved over the years. It was along the same curve. When will the peak point be hit? Almost all calculations place that moment around Easter. That does not mean the disease will be eradicated by then, but rather that the contagion rate will have stopped accelerating. By the end of the summer we will reach the final numbers. The latest forecasts put the global statistics of this pandemic at 20 million infected and one million dead. Bulgaria should record about 2,000 times fewer cases than that. That would mean 10,000 infected and 500 dead when it is all said and done. There is a worst-case scenario, considering that this virus has started closely resembling the SARS outbreak of 2002-03. SARS was a severe infection with a 10% mortality rate. But I do not want to think in those terms. Let me reiterate that our country is doing exceptionally well relative to the rest of the world. We currently have 50-60 confirmed cases per one million people, whereas globally the number is 95 per one million people. You see the nightmare unfolding in Europe - Italy and Spain, especially.  

Should the measures be even more stringent, though?

Let us see how things progress. It is not my decision to make, bit I would not rush to tighten measures. Especially considering that Bulgarians seem to grasp the seriousness of the situation. We have turned out to be much more disciplined than the Italians and the Spanish, who underestimated the threat.

We have even heard comparisons to the Spanish flu? Are they apt?

We do not have precise numbers for the Spanish flu - the death toll is believed to be somewhere between 25 and 50 million people. If this coronavirus pandemic continues on the current trajectory, the death toll will be between one and two million people globally. Do not forget that about 300 people in Bulgaria die every day of other diseases. And that is in no way related to Covid-19. Some 108,000 Bulgarians died in 2019. We should also consider another observation - this new coronavirus, similarly to the Spanish flu, has a fatal outcome mostly for the elderly.

You said that the pandemic is expected to fade away at the end of the summer. Could you be more specific?

The infection rate should start going down between 20 and 25 April, the so-called break in the curve. The pandemic should come to an end in the second half of August. My hope is that we avoid a second wave. Genetically, this virus is 92% identical to SARS, which means it behaves similarly.

The globalised world is certainly presenting us with new challenges that require new approaches. Would you agree with that?

Yes, but we have to be resilient. It will take a few months, then things will be better.

Close-up

Prof. Mihail Konstantinov was born on 5 March 1948 in Sofia. In 1986 he earned a PhD in mathematics from the Institute for Mathematics and Mechanics with the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. He has authored nearly 600 scientific works, including dozens of books. He served as a deputy rector of the University of Architecture, Civil Engineering and Geodesy from 1999 until 2003. He also sat on the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) during a number of general, European Parliament, presidential and local elections from 1991 until 2011. He chaired the CEC during general, European Parliament and local elections held between 2003 and 2009.

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