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Coronavirus Lockdowns Saved Millions Of Lives, Journal 'Nature' Reports


All right. New York state is starting to reopen after nearly three months of coronavirus lockdown. And according to two new papers published in the journal Nature, lockdowns really do work. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports that stay-at-home orders, bans on large gatherings and business closures have saved millions of lives around the world.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: As the coronavirus started spreading around the world earlier this year, public health officials had few tools to combat it. There was no known medicine to treat it, no vaccine to prevent it, not enough tests to detect it. Once an outbreak got going, the virus was spreading like wildfire, with the number of infections in many places doubling nearly every two days. Unable to keep the coronavirus from jumping from one human to the next, public health officials decided to separate the humans.

SAMIR BHATT: Our estimates show that lockdowns had a really dramatic effect in reducing transmission.

BEAUBIEN: That's Samir Bhatt from Imperial College London, who worked on one of the papers published in Nature. His team analyzed infection and death rates across 11 European nations through early May. They estimate that 3 million more people in those countries would've died if lockdowns had not been put in place.

BHATT: Without them, we believe the toll would've been huge.

BEAUBIEN: In addition to the paper from Bhatt and his colleagues, Nature also just published a separate study from the Global Policy Lab at the University of California, Berkeley. That study analyzed lockdowns in China, South Korea, Iran, France, Italy and the United States. It found that the lockdowns in those six countries averted 62 million cases. In the U.S., for example, there were 360,000 cases by early April. Without lockdowns and other interventions, the researchers at Berkeley calculate that the U.S. would've had 14 times that number by April 6. Solomon Hsiang from Berkeley says these unprecedented shelter-in-place orders came at an extreme cost. And when governments ordered them, it was unclear exactly how great the social benefits would be.

SOLOMON HSIANG: The value of these studies you're seeing today is that they're demonstrating what the benefits of those policies are.

BEAUBIEN: Which is that they averted tens of thousands of infections. Both sets of researchers caution that even as lockdowns start to ease, COVID still poses a grave danger. The vast majority of people remain susceptible, and the virus could flare back up if left unchecked.

BHATT: We're not saying that the country needs to stay locked down forever, but it's a cost-benefit situation.

BEAUBIEN: Again, Samir Bhatt from Imperial College London.

BHATT: When you release lockdown and you go for milder intervention, yes, economic stability can return to some degree, but you then have to trade off the rise of infections that is possible. And so what we are saying is that some degree of intervention needs to be in place.

BEAUBIEN: Bhatt says this pandemic is far from over. And as much as people want to get back to normal, he cautions that people need to understand how much of a positive impact the lockdown measures have been having. As difficult as this year has been, Hsiang at Berkeley says this spring would've been much worse if so many people hadn't stayed home. Without these lockdown measures, Hsiang says the scale of the infections would've been, in his words, almost unimaginable.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.