For Science!
What Plague Inc. Teaches Us About Ebola and Pandemics

CJ Miozzi | 27 Aug 2014 21:00
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Simulating Ebola in Plague Inc.

Two to six months - that would make the duration of the outbreak, as a whole, roughly one year. I decided to boot up Plague Inc. and try to simulate the situation in order to see how the game would resolve the outbreak. After choosing West Africa as my starting region, I did my best to evolve traits that matched Ebola: transmission through blood, symptoms including vomiting, diarrhoea, rash, haemophilia, internal haemorrhaging, and total organ failure, as well as numerous abilities to delay the production of a cure.

...very few laboratories in the world can work with the live [Ebola] virus.

According to David Wang, PhD candidate in biochemistry at Canada's McGill University, we'd be years away from an Ebola vaccine, even with first world nations making it a priority. Part of the problem is that Ebola is BSL-4 virus, "so very few laboratories in the world can work with the live virus," he told The Escapist. BSL-4 - or biosafety level 4 - invokes the highest levels of containment for biological agents. Further, "We will need a much greater understanding of Ebola's molecular mechanism," he explained, beyond merely how it presents symptoms. Even if expediting measures would be taken - such as skipping several drug trials - Wang estimates a vaccine would be at least one year away, and likely even two to three years away.

Within two months, my simulated Ebola had infected 57 people in West Africa. By contrast, according to the World Health Organization, 49 cases of Ebola were estimated by March 22, roughly three and a half months after the initial outbreak. While we can argue that the sim was fairly accurate so far, the main disparity was the fact that Ebola had already killed 29 people by that point, whereas my sim's death count remained at 0. Today, roughly nine months after the initial outbreak, 2,615 cases of Ebola have been reported, as well as 1,427 deaths caused by the virus. In my sim, it took three and a half months to reach 2,828 infected, with 0 dead. In fact, it took four months and almost 700,000 infected people before the first deaths began to appear, and five months for the world to detect the existence of the disease.

Thereafter, the numbers grew out of control, and any semblance of simulation was lost. After six months, over 300,000,000 living people were infected and over 8,000,000 were dead - at that point, West Africa shut down its land borders. Curiously, the timeline for how long it took West African nations to close their borders in real life roughly matches. 11 months in, death counts were approaching 800,000,000, a number of countries were infected, and West Africa had fallen into anarchy. After roughly two and a half years, the outbreak finally died out, after killing roughly 4.7 billion people.

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