Coronavirus Risk Calculators: What You Need to Know
People in my family seem to develop every ailment in the world, including feline distemper and Dutch elm disease, so I naturally put fingers to keyboard when I discovered that COVID-19 risk calculators now exist.
"It's best to look at your risk band. This will give you a more useful insight into your personal risk."
But the results – based on my answers to questions -- are bewildering.
A British risk calculator developed by the Nexoid software company declared I have a 5 percent, or 1 in 20, chance of developing COVID-19 and less than 1 percent risk of dying if I get it. Um, great, I think? Meanwhile, 19 and Me, a risk calculator created by data scientists, says my risk of infection is 0.01 percent per week, or 1 in 10,000, and it gave me a risk score of 44 out of 100.
Confused? Join the club. But it's actually possible to interpret numbers like these and put them to use. Here are five tips about using coronavirus risk calculators:
1. Make Sure the Calculator Is Designed For You
Not every COVID-19 risk calculator is designed to be used by the general public. Cleveland Clinic's risk calculator, for example, is only a tool for medical professionals, not sick people or the "worried well," said Dr. Lara Jehi, Cleveland Clinic's chief research information officer.
Unfortunately, the risk calculator's web page fails to explicitly identify its target audience. But there are hints that it's not for lay people such as its references to "platelets" and "chlorides."
COVID-19 risk calculators ask for a lot of personal information. The Nexoid calculator, for example, wanted to know my age, weight, drug and alcohol history, pre-existing conditions, blood type and more. It even asked me about the prescription drugs I take.
John-Arne Skolbekken, a professor and risk specialist at Norwegian University of Science and Technology, entered his own data in the Nexoid calculator after being contacted by LeapsMag for comment. He noted that the calculator, among other things, asks for information about use of recreational drugs that could be illegal in some places. "I have given away some of my personal data to a company that I can hope will not misuse them," he said. "Let's hope they are trustworthy."
The 19 and Me calculator, by contrast, doesn't gather any data from users, said Cindy Hu, data scientist at Mathematica, which created it. "As soon as the window is closed, that data is gone and not captured."
3. Keep an Eye on Time Horizons
Let's say a risk calculator says you have a 1 percent risk of infection. That's fairly low if we're talking about this year as a whole, but it's quite worrisome if the risk percentage refers to today and jumps by 1 percent each day going forward. That's why it's helpful to know exactly what the numbers mean in terms of time.
Unfortunately, this information isn't always readily available. You may have to dig around for it or contact a risk calculator's developers for more information. The 19 and Me calculator's risk percentages refer to this current week based on your behavior this week, Hu said. The Nexoid calculator, by contrast, has an "infinite timeline" that assumes no vaccine is developed, said Jonathon Grantham, the company's managing director. But your results will vary over time since the calculator's developers adjust it to reflect new data.
When you use a risk calculator, focus on this question: "How does your risk compare to the risk of an 'average' person?"
4. Focus on the Big Picture
The Nexoid calculator gave me numbers of 5 percent (getting COVID-19) and 99.309 percent (surviving it). It even provided betting odds for gambling types: The odds are in favor of me not getting infected (19-to-1) and not dying if I get infected (144-to-1).
However, Grantham told me that these numbers "are not the whole story." Instead, he said, "it's best to look at your risk band. This will give you a more useful insight into your personal risk." Risk bands refer to a segmentation of people into five categories, from lowest to highest risk, according to how a person's result sits relative to the whole dataset.
The Nexoid calculator says I'm in the "lowest risk band" for getting COVID-19, and a "high risk band" for dying of it if I get it. That suggests I'd better stay in the lowest-risk category because my pre-existing risk factors could spell trouble for my survival if I get infected.
Michael J. Pencina, a professor and biostatistician at Duke University School of Medicine, agreed that focusing on your general risk level is better than focusing on numbers. When you use a risk calculator, he said, focus on this question: "How does your risk compare to the risk of an 'average' person?"
The 19 and Me calculator, meanwhile, put my risk at 44 out of 100. Hu said that a score of 50 represents the typical person's risk of developing serious consequences from another disease – the flu.
5. Remember to Take Action
Hu, who helped develop the 19 and Me risk calculator, said it's best to use it to "understand the relative impact of different behaviors." As she noted, the calculator is designed to allow users to plug in different answers about their behavior and immediately see how their risk levels change.
This information can help us figure out if we should change the way we approach the world by, say, washing our hands more or avoiding more personal encounters.
"Estimation of risk is only one part of prevention," Pencina said. "The other is risk factors and our ability to reduce them." In other words, odds, percentages and risk bands can be revealing, but it's what we do to change them that matters.
Harsh Mathur was a graduate physics student at Yale University in late 1989 when faculty announced they had failed to replicate claims made by scientists at the University of Utah and the University of Wolverhampton in England.
Such work is routine. Replicating or attempting to replicate the contraptions, calculations and conclusions crafted by colleagues is foundational to the scientific method. But in this instance, Yale’s findings were reported globally.
“I had a ringside view, and it was crazy,” recalls Mathur, now a professor of physics at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.
Yale’s findings drew so much attention because initial experiments by Stanley Pons of Utah and Martin Fleischmann of Wolverhampton led to a startling claim: They were able to fuse atoms at room temperature – a scientific El Dorado known as “cold fusion.”
Nuclear fusion powers the stars in the universe. However, star cores must be at least 23.4 million degrees Fahrenheit and under extraordinary pressure to achieve fusion. Pons and Fleischmann claimed they had created an almost limitless source of power achievable at any temperature.
Like fusion, superconductivity can only be achieved in mostly impractical circumstances.
But about six months after they made their startling announcement, the pair’s findings were discredited by researchers at Yale and the California Institute of Technology. It was one of the first instances of a major scientific debunking covered by mass media.
Some scholars say the media attention for cold fusion stemmed partly from a dazzling announcement made three years prior in 1986: Scientists had created the first “superconductor” – material that could transmit electrical current with little or no resistance. It drew global headlines – and whetted the public’s appetite for announcements of scientific breakthroughs that could cause economic transformations.
But like fusion, superconductivity can only be achieved in mostly impractical circumstances: It must operate either at temperatures of at least negative 100 degrees Fahrenheit, or under pressures of around 150,000 pounds per square inch. Superconductivity that functions in closer to a normal environment would cut energy costs dramatically while also opening infinite possibilities for computing, space travel and other applications.
In July, a group of South Korean scientists posted material claiming they had created an iron crystalline substance called LK-99 that could achieve superconductivity at slightly above room temperature and at ambient pressure. The group partners with the Quantum Energy Research Centre, a privately-held enterprise in Seoul, and their claims drew global headlines.
Their work was also debunked. But in the age of internet and social media, the process was compressed from half-a-year into days. And it did not require researchers at world-class universities.
One of the most compelling critiques came from Derrick VanGennep. Although he works in finance, he holds a Ph.D. in physics and held a postdoctoral position at Harvard. The South Korean researchers had posted a video of a nugget of LK-99 in what they claimed was the throes of the Meissner effect – an expulsion of the substance’s magnetic field that would cause it to levitate above a magnet. Unless Hollywood magic is involved, only superconducting material can hover in this manner.
That claim made VanGennep skeptical, particularly since LK-99’s levitation appeared unenthusiastic at best. In fact, a corner of the material still adhered to the magnet near its center. He thought the video demonstrated ferromagnetism – two magnets repulsing one another. He mixed powdered graphite with super glue, stuck iron filings to its surface and mimicked the behavior of LK-99 in his own video, which was posted alongside the researchers’ video.
VanGennep believes the boldness of the South Korean claim was what led to him and others in the scientific community questioning it so quickly.
“The swift replication attempts stemmed from the combination of the extreme claim, the fact that the synthesis for this material is very straightforward and fast, and the amount of attention that this story was getting on social media,” he says.
But practicing scientists were suspicious of the data as well. Michael Norman, director of the Argonne Quantum Institute at the Argonne National Laboratory just outside of Chicago, had doubts immediately.
Will this saga hurt or even affect the careers of the South Korean researchers? Possibly not, if the previous fusion example is any indication.
“It wasn’t a very polished paper,” Norman says of the Korean scientists’ work. That opinion was reinforced, he adds, when it turned out the paper had been posted online by one of the researchers prior to seeking publication in a peer-reviewed journal. Although Norman and Mathur say that is routine with scientific research these days, Norman notes it was posted by one of the junior researchers over the doubts of two more senior scientists on the project.
Norman also raises doubts about the data reported. Among other issues, he observes that the samples created by the South Korean researchers contained traces of copper sulfide that could inadvertently amplify findings of conductivity.
The lack of the Meissner effect also caught Mathur’s attention. “Ferromagnets tend to be unstable when they levitate,” he says, adding that the video “just made me feel unconvinced. And it made me feel like they hadn't made a very good case for themselves.”
Will this saga hurt or even affect the careers of the South Korean researchers? Possibly not, if the previous fusion example is any indication. Despite being debunked, cold fusion claimants Pons and Fleischmann didn’t disappear. They moved their research to automaker Toyota’s IMRA laboratory in France, which along with the Japanese government spent tens of millions of dollars on their work before finally pulling the plug in 1998.
Fusion has since been created in laboratories, but being unable to reproduce the density of a star’s core would require excruciatingly high temperatures to achieve – about 160 million degrees Fahrenheit. A recently released Government Accountability Office report concludes practical fusion likely remains at least decades away.
However, like Pons and Fleischman, the South Korean researchers are not going anywhere. They claim that LK-99’s Meissner effect is being obscured by the fact the substance is both ferromagnetic and diamagnetic. They have filed for a patent in their country. But for now, those claims remain chimerical.
In the meantime, the consensus as to when a room temperature superconductor will be achieved is mixed. VenGennep – who studied the issue during his graduate and postgraduate work – puts the chance of creating such a superconductor by 2050 at perhaps 50-50. Mathur believes it could happen sooner, but adds that research on the topic has been going on for nearly a century, and that it has seen many plateaus.
“There's always this possibility that there's going to be something out there that we're going to discover unexpectedly,” Norman notes. The only certainty in this age of social media is that it will be put through the rigors of replication instantly.
When David M. Kurtz was doing his clinical fellowship at Stanford University Medical Center in 2009, specializing in lymphoma treatments, he found himself grappling with a question no one could answer. A typical regimen for these blood cancers prescribed six cycles of chemotherapy, but no one knew why. "The number seemed to be drawn out of a hat," Kurtz says. Some patients felt much better after just two doses, but had to endure the toxic effects of the entire course. For some elderly patients, the side effects of chemo are so harsh, they alone can kill. Others appeared to be cancer-free on the CT scans after the requisite six but then succumbed to it months later.
"Anecdotally, one patient decided to stop therapy after one dose because he felt it was so toxic that he opted for hospice instead," says Kurtz, now an oncologist at the center. "Five years down the road, he was alive and well. For him, just one dose was enough." Others would return for their one-year check up and find that their tumors grew back. Kurtz felt that while CT scans and MRIs were powerful tools, they weren't perfect ones. They couldn't tell him if there were any cancer cells left, stealthily waiting to germinate again. The scans only showed the tumor once it was back.
Blood cancers claim about 68,000 people a year, with a new diagnosis made about every three minutes, according to the Leukemia Research Foundation. For patients with B-cell lymphoma, which Kurtz focuses on, the survival chances are better than for some others. About 60 percent are cured, but the remaining 40 percent will relapse—possibly because they will have a negative CT scan, but still harbor malignant cells. "You can't see this on imaging," says Michael Green, who also treats blood cancers at University of Texas MD Anderson Medical Center.
The new blood test is sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
Kurtz wanted a better diagnostic tool, so he started working on a blood test that could capture the circulating tumor DNA or ctDNA. For that, he needed to identify the specific mutations typical for B-cell lymphomas. Working together with another fellow PhD student Jake Chabon, Kurtz finally zeroed-in on the tumor's genetic "appearance" in 2017—a pair of specific mutations sitting in close proximity to each other—a rare and telling sign. The human genome contains about 3 billion base pairs of nucleotides—molecules that compose genes—and in case of the B-cell lymphoma cells these two mutations were only a few base pairs apart. "That was the moment when the light bulb went on," Kurtz says.
The duo formed a company named Foresight Diagnostics, focusing on taking the blood test to the clinic. But knowing the tumor's mutational signature was only half the process. The other was fishing the tumor's DNA out of patients' bloodstream that contains millions of other DNA molecules, explains Chabon, now Foresight's CEO. It would be like looking for an escaped criminal in a large crowd. Kurtz and Chabon solved the problem by taking the tumor's "mug shot" first. Doctors would take the biopsy pre-treatment and sequence the tumor, as if taking the criminal's photo. After treatments, they would match the "mug shot" to all DNA molecules derived from the patient's blood sample to see if any molecular criminals managed to escape the chemo.
Foresight isn't the only company working on blood-based tumor detection tests, which are dubbed liquid biopsies—other companies such as Natera or ArcherDx developed their own. But in a recent study, the Foresight team showed that their method is significantly more sensitive in "fishing out" the cancer molecules than existing tests. Chabon says that this test can detect circulating tumor DNA in concentrations that are nearly 100 times lower than other methods. Put another way, it's sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
They also aim to extend their test to detect other malignancies such as lung, breast or colorectal cancers.
"It increases the sensitivity of detection and really catches most patients who are going to progress," says Green, the University of Texas oncologist who wasn't involved in the study, but is familiar with the method. It would also allow monitoring patients during treatment and making better-informed decisions about which therapy regimens would be most effective. "It's a minimally invasive test," Green says, and "it gives you a very high confidence about what's going on."
Having shown that the test works well, Kurtz and Chabon are planning a new trial in which oncologists would rely on their method to decide when to stop or continue chemo. They also aim to extend their test to detect other malignancies such as lung, breast or colorectal cancers. The latest genome sequencing technologies have sequenced and catalogued over 2,500 different tumor specimens and the Foresight team is analyzing this data, says Chabon, which gives the team the opportunity to create more molecular "mug shots."
The team hopes that that their blood cancer test will become available to patients within about five years, making doctors' job easier, and not only at the biological level. "When I tell patients, "good news, your cancer is in remission', they ask me, 'does it mean I'm cured?'" Kurtz says. "Right now I can't answer this question because I don't know—but I would like to." His company's test, he hopes, will enable him to reply with certainty. He'd very much like to have the power of that foresight.
This article is republished from our archives to coincide with Blood Cancer Awareness Month, which highlights progress in cancer diagnostics and treatment.
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Popular Science, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, the New York Times and other major national and international publications. A Columbia J-School alumna, she has won several awards for her stories, including the ASJA Crisis Coverage Award for Covid reporting, and has been a contributing editor at Nautilus Magazine. In 2021, Zeldovich released her first book, The Other Dark Matter, published by the University of Chicago Press, about the science and business of turning waste into wealth and health. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.