The Contagion Detective

The COVID-19 pandemic was some epidemiologist’s nightmare when Adam Kucharski was writing Rules of Contagion. Released this week, the book, which includes brief mentions of the encroaching COVID-19 storm, draws on ideas from “outbreak science” to illuminate how and why viruses spread. Information from biology, Kucharski expertly demonstrates, has helped scientists understand how misinformation rages like fire in the fields of politics and finance. Kucharski is entitled to feel like Nostradamus, but people in his field “always have the next pandemic on the radar,” he told Wired.

Kucharski is an associate professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He is a mathematician by training, and like most hotshot quants, he planned on a career in investment banking. In the summer of 2008, he worked in finance, just as the global economy was teetering on the edge of collapse. Then he switched direction and became an epidemiologist. But Kucharski believes the two professions aren’t so different, at least for those who care about mathematical modeling. He says calculating and quantifying the curve of a pandemic is crucial to any successful campaign to end it.

Kucharski believes the same general principles of contagion apply in various parts of our lives—disease, financial bubbles, gun violence, even new ideas. Just as diseases spread when there are plenty of unsuspecting bodies to infect, so do financial schemes take off and crackpot ideas go viral. Then, inevitably, they decline and fade away. We all know this,, and hear his latest views on the COVID-19 outbreak. He believes we’re still in the early stages—not even the mid-point—of this global pandemic.

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