(Bloomberg) — There could be as many as two dozen people in the U.S. infected with Ebola by the end of the month, according to researchers tracking the virus with a computer model.
The actual number probably will be far smaller and limited to a couple of airline passengers who enter the country already infected without showing symptoms, and the health workers who care for them, said Alessandro Vespignani, a Northeastern University professor who runs computer simulations of infectious disease outbreaks. The two newly infected nurses in Dallas don’t change the numbers because they were identified quickly and it’s unlikely they infected other people, he said.
The projections only run through October because it’s too difficult to model what will occur if the pace of the outbreak changes in West Africa, where more than 8,900 people have been infected and 4,500 have died, he said. If the outbreak isn’t contained, the numbers may rise significantly.
“If by the end of the year the growth rate hasn’t changed, then the game will be different,” Vespignani said. “It will increase for many other countries.”
The model analyzes disease activity, flight patterns and other factors that can contribute to its spread.
“We have a worst-case scenario, and you don’t even want to know,” Vespignani said. “We could have widespread epidemics in other countries, maybe the Far East. That would be like a bad science fiction movie.”
The worst case would occur if Ebola acquires pandemic status and is no longer contained in West Africa, he said. It would be a catastrophic event, one Vespignani said he is confident won’t happen.
“Let’s be rational for the next couple of months,” he said. “We aren’t going to have an invasion of cases. After November, we need to reassess the situation and see what is the progress of containment in West Africa.”
Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia President Charles Plosser said he’s not concerned about Ebola’s impact on the U.S.
“I don’t out a lot of weight on the Ebola stuff at this point, at least for the U.S. stock market and the U.S. financial markets,” he told reporters after a speech in Allentown, Pennsylvania. “You could make up scenarios, and people are really good at making up fantastically doomsday scenarios. I don’t engage in that.”
It’s unlikely that Ebola will ever exceed 20 cases in the U.S. or Europe because of their extensive health-care infrastructures, said Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C. The problem in the developed world will center more on the economic impact, he said.
“The damage is not as much in the number of deaths as much as in the panic it creates and all the disruption it creates in trade and travel,” he said. “It’s important for public health officials to strike a balance between being serious and certainly not creating panic.”
“It’s not going to be like the movie ‘Contagion,’” he said.