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Fredkin Modeling SARS Epidemic, Offers Advice to CDC

By Marissa Vogt

ASSOCIATE NEWS EDITOR

Visiting scientist and former MIT professor Edward Fredkin is attempting to curb the recent spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, by using spreadsheets to model the behavior of the epidemic.

Fredkin is using a collection of interconnected spreadsheets to simulate the behavior of those infected with the disease and how they might communicate the disease to others. He plans to present his findings to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization on April 17.

“There’s the possibility that this epidemic could be very bad,” said Fredkin. “Various authorities like the CDC in the United States and countries around the world have to make decisions” about how best to go about containing the disease.

Fredkin’s goal, he said, is to model the effects of possible options of containment, such as controlling airline flights or quarantining infected people, to guide health authorities in their decisions.

Fredkin hopes that his model will help to determine what the consequences would be “if you change something, such as you cut down some kind of travel ... so that people can think about that.”

“It’s very hard for them to be sure whether these decisions will help or cause mischief,” Fredkin said. “The ideal is to make a system that models the behavior of this epidemic so one can try out with this system different policies and get an idea of what the effect is like.”

The spreadsheet Fredkin is making has one column for each day, in which he will record data such as the number of people infected with the disease and the number of deaths. Eventually, Fredkin said, it will also include all schedule airline flights to an area where there are infected people.

“Computers have memory large enough now that it’s easy to model behavior of people and how they might communicate the disease to others,” Fredkin said.

Volunteers needed to program

Fredkin held a meeting last week at the Media Lab to inform others of his plans and to gather support for his efforts. Though he received encouragement from those who attended, Fredkin says that he is currently working on the project alone and is seeking volunteers to help him.

“Anyone who can program, especially with experience in [Microsoft] Excel,” can help, Fredkin said.

In an e-mail informing people about the meeting at the media lab last week, Fredkin said that the results of his initial model “are such as to provide a lot of motivation for a number of good people to put other things on hold and pay attention to this issue.”

“There are no experts in this kind of thing. It is a problem and this community may be uniquely able to have a profound and effective positive influence on the eventual outcome,” the e-mail said.

Fredkin said that he was motivated by the urgency of the situation and felt that his own problem-solving abilities and those of the MIT community had the potential to have a positive effect.

“A lot of good can be done. We don’t need any money, we don’t need any equipment, we just need the help of the kind of people who are here at MIT,” he said.