A different angle: Rystad Energy applies its modelling methods to explain the COVID-19 pandemic

Source: press release, 21 December 2020

Seasonal COVID-19 patterns in fatality figures/True infected count and outlook (source: Rystad Energy COVID-19 research and analysis, Worldometer, The IHME Institute at University of Washington)
Seasonal COVID-19 patterns in fatality figures/True infected count and outlook (source: Rystad Energy COVID-19 research and analysis, Worldometer, The IHME Institute at University of Washington)

In an unusual year, Rystad Energy has taken an uncommon step. Despite being primarily an energy-focused intelligence company, the analysts have used their algorithms, models and analytical expertise to illustrate the pandemic in numbers, explain its development patterns and forecast its future trajectory. These analyses are based on a range of scenarios that take into account behavioural, medical and scientific elements, as well as policy.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Rystad Energy has been producing a dedicated and thorough report for its clients, the energy-related sections of which have also been – at times – made available to a wider audience through press releases.

As 2020 is (finally) approaching an end, in this unusual press release Rystad Energy offers a public glimpse of its non-energy-related research of the COVID-19 pandemic and release some forecasts on how it believes 2021 will unfold.

Infection rate observations
Rystad Energy’s research offers compelling evidence that the seasonal effect of the virus is very real. Spikes in new cases were clearly seen in Southern Hemisphere countries in the coldest months of July and August, shifting to Northern Hemisphere countries in October and November as temperatures dropped there. Thus, COVID-19 follows the well-known influenza patterns, but it is also at least twice as infectious as the regular flu, so it does not simply disappear during the summer.

Rystad Energy has also detected a new pattern in the global contamination data, namely that in hot summer regions within wealthy economies there was a significant rise of cases in the hottest months. This could be related to air conditioning – that the virus is spread more efficiently when people spend extensive time indoors in an air-conditioned atmosphere. This is evident in the Sun Belt states of the US, as well as in Japan and in high-income regions of Mexico and the Middle East.

The basic reproduction number R0 refers to how many people one infected person will infect. For influenza R0 equals 1.3, while for COVID-19 in most places it was 2.4, assuming the same behaviour as for people in a normal flu season. However, behavioural change including social distancing could take down the number to below 1, meaning that the number of infected people will decline. And this is exactly what many nations have succeeded in doing through various measures over the past 10 months.

The basic reproduction number can also be expressed as how many people an individual meets every day (contact rate), times the likelihood of transmitting the virus (transmissibility), times the average number of days the individual is having infectious interactions with others. When the pandemic started, these figures typically involved a contact rate of 5-10, transmissibility of 4%-8% and 6 days of infectious interaction, resulting in an R0 calculation whereby 10×4%x6 = 5×8%x6 = 2.4 people are infected.

With the lockdown measures, the contact rate is taken down sufficiently for one person to transmit the virus to only 0.5-1.0 people. Based on a holistic assessment of the growth and decline of all contamination figures globally, combined with lockdown figures, Rystad Energy sees that the transmissibility figure varies from 2% in a hot outdoor summer climate to 10% in a cool climate, whereas for an air-conditioned climate the figure lies around 5%.

Rystad Energy has also modelled the rollout of global vaccination campaigns. In the vaccine production base-case, most of the leading vaccine candidates are expected to be granted official approval between January and March, covering most major regions globally, with the largest number of vaccines likely to be approved towards the end of January.

For 2021, Rystad Energy forecasts a total of 10.8 billion doses produced and distributed. The actual number of doses produced is slightly higher, but Rystad Energy has accounted for some production issues and errant handling during transport of vaccines.

The modelled production numbers for the various vaccines are slightly below the figures communicated by the respective pharmaceutical companies, but several vaccine producers have already revised down their production targets for 2021, and further revisions can be expected in the near future.

With an efficacy rate of 83% and an average of two doses required per person to achieve full vaccination, the Rystad Energy base-case scenario shows most of the developed world is expected to reach 50% inoculation before the end of 2021, while developing countries are not expected to reach this threshold until 2022.

Infections and fatalities
Despite lower reported numbers of confirmed cases, the Rystad Energy model shows that 510 million people are likely to have been infected with COVID-19 as of 15 December. There are around 73 million reported confirmed cases, or 14% of the model’s true cases. Registered fatalities globally had reached 1,635,000 as of 15 December. According to New York Times’ registration of deaths above normal levels, another 410,000 people have probably died due to COVID-19.

The Rystad Energy model predicts that the numbers will climb to 550 million infected and 2.2 million deceased by year-end (including missing deaths). Current figures continue to show near-record highs, both with respect to reported new infected cases (0.6 million per day), true new cases (3 million per day) and deaths per day (11,000 per day).

“The steepest growth is still seen in the Northern Hemisphere due to the cold season, and the next seven weeks are likely to be very tough. However, as inoculation programs gain momentum we expect a steep drop in fatalities from March,” says Jarand Rystad, CEO of Rystad Energy.

In Europe and North America, 2-3% of inhabitants are above 85 years old, 6-10% are above 75 and 16-21% are above 65. For other developed regions, the comparative figures are 0.5-1%, 2-5% and 6-14%, respectively. Thus, if vaccinations progress according to this plan, all people above the age of 85 will be vaccinated during Jan/Feb, while those above 75 will follow during Feb/Mar and those above 65 will receive shots by March (Europe/North America), April (South America) and May (Asia).

As COVID-19-related fatality rates are respectively 9%, 2.5% and 1.2% for the three oldest groups, and just 0.1% for the rest, fatalities are expected to be reduced significantly from March/April.

Senior citizens are the demographic group that is most vulnerable to COVID-19. Thus, most countries will likely identify vaccination of this group as their first priority. In total, there are 727 million people above the age of 65 worldwide.

Globally, there are: 64 million people above 85 years of age, 205 million people in the age group 75-84, and 458 million people in the age group 65-74. In addition, there are hundreds of millions in other vulnerable groups, like people with cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer. Still, there should be enough doses for vaccination of all of these people by the end of 2021 if they are prioritised.

For more details and further granularity, professionals are welcome to