T Division team wins Lewis Wolpert prize for prescient COVID-19 paper

Award recognizes outstanding contributions to field of theoretical biology

March 3, 2022

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A paper written using data from the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic is the recipient of the Lewis Wolpert Prize for Best Paper in 2022. The authors are Ruian Ke, Ethan Romero-Severson, Steven Sanche and Nick Hengartner, all of Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Theoretical Division at the time of the publication. Hengartner now leads the Los Alamos Center for Nonlinear Studies and Sanche is in private industry.

The paper, “Estimating the reproductive number R0 of SARS-CoV-2 in the United States and eight European countries and implications for vaccination,” was published in the Journal of Theoretical Biology in May 2021.

Lead author Ke said, “We were able to provide one of the first estimations that the virus would spread in Europe and the United States extremely rapidly in the absence of intervention efforts and we predicted that frequent and high levels of vaccinations in the population would be needed to suppress the spread of the virus. These estimations and predictions proved to be crucial scientific bases for the necessity of comprehensive public-health intervention efforts and high levels of vaccination coverage.”

A substantial contribution

The Lewis Wolpert Prize for Best Paper is an annual award to a research team or single investigator whose article in Journal of Theoretical Biology has made an outstanding contribution to the field in recent years.

“Not only does your paper make a substantial contribution in science of SARS-CoV-2; additionally, your paper has been downloaded 14,000 times and has already received 22 citations in a short time since publication,” said Denise Kirschner, co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Theoretical Biology, the organization sponsoring the award.

“I am absolutely thrilled that our team is receiving the award,” said Ke. “The Journal of Theoretical Biology is one of the oldest and most respected journals in the area of theoretical biology. This is a recognition of the extraordinary efforts of the whole team to address the most important questions regarding the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in early 2020.”

The award summary notes that “a key challenge early in the COVID-19 pandemic was estimation of summary statistics characterizing SARS-CoV-2 transmission from limited available data. Central to this challenge was estimation of reproduction numbers and epidemic growth rates in different countries worldwide. This paper was chosen for the Lewis Wolpert Prize for Best Paper in 2022 because of its importance in addressing that challenge in the earliest stages of the pandemic.”

Mathematical modeling illustrated

The research was carried out in early 2020, based on data up until March 2020 (around the time that substantial public health measures were introduced across the world). The journal noted, “Not only did the authors develop an epidemiological model and use statistical inference techniques to estimate parameters characterizing transmission, but they also set their findings in the context of future vaccination strategies. They demonstrated the high transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2, as well as the need for highly effective vaccines distributed widely to reduce transmission substantially. The article illustrates the role of mathematical modelling for understanding pathogen transmission and control.”

“On a scientific level, it is gratifying to see that our predictions in early 2020 have been proven to be accurate in the past year and a half,” Ke said. “However, the devastating impact of COVID-19 on our health and our society reminds us of the huge challenges ahead and that rigorous and innovative research is urgently needed to understand the infection, the spread and the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 in order to make accurate predictions and identify effective intervention strategies and ultimately save lives.”

The $1,000 prize was established in 2021 in memory of Professor Lewis Wolpert and honors one paper each year (taken from up to three years prior to the award year) that makes outstanding contributions to the field of theoretical biology and bears significant importance on the biology being presented. This serves to promote and advance important research findings in the scientific area of the works awarded. 

Journal of Theoretical Biology award page