New COVID-19 model reveals effectiveness of travel restrictions


TROY, NY – More strategic and coordinated travel restrictions likely could have reduced the spread of COVID-19 in the early stages of the pandemic. That’s according to a new study published in Communications physics. This discovery stems from new modeling carried out by a multidisciplinary team of scientists and engineers from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

The researchers assessed the distance between countries in terms of air travel, a more complex measure than simply mapping physical distance. For example, while China and Thailand may be geographically closer to each other, if there are many more flights between China and the United States, the risk of the disease spreading may be higher.

“This is seen as a global problem,” said Mamadou Diagne, assistant professor of mechanical, aerospace and nuclear engineering at Rensselaer, “so we wanted to know if coordinated action could be taken to mitigate contamination rates around the world” .

By mapping and analyzing the global mobility network through air traffic models, the researchers were able to determine the level of connection between different nations and develop a model that can predict which countries are closer to each other in terms of spread of disease. The model was able to predict when the virus arrived in the United States.

Using this approach, the team examined the effectiveness of various countries’ travel restrictions implemented in an attempt to slow the transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19.

“For example, we found that the Chinese lockdown reduced the time the virus arrived in uninfected countries by about 10 days,” said Jianxi Gao, assistant professor of computer science at Rensselaer. “And, it reduced the number of infections by 6 million worldwide.”

Travel restrictions adopted by other countries, including entry bans, global travel bans and blockades, have also helped reduce the global spread. However, the Rensselaer team found that these actions could have been much more effective if the countries had worked in concert with each other.

“According to the data we collected, around 63.2% of the travel restrictions were ineffective,” said Lu Zhong, postdoctoral researcher in mechanical, aerospace and nuclear engineering. “Because the travel restrictions were made in an uncoordinated fashion, they did not contribute to the global good.”

Diagne, Gao, and Zhong found that redundant or unnecessary travel restrictions were also affecting the global economy. A more effective approach, they said, could mitigate the economic damage.


Researchers began this work before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, although they focused on a different disease at the time. They believe the model could be applied to future pandemics in addition to mitigating some of the continuing effects of the current pandemic.

These results were originally published in prepublication on MedRxiv, an online repository of articles that have been selected but not peer reviewed.

About the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Founded in 1824, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is the first technological research university in the United States. Rensselaer encompasses five schools, 32 research centers, over 145 academic programs and a vibrant community of over 7,600 students and over 100,000 living alumni. Rensselaer’s faculty and alumni include more than 145 members of the National Academy, six members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, six winners of the National Medal of Technology, five winners of the National Medal of Science and one award winner. Nobel Prize in Physics. With nearly 200 years of experience in advancing scientific and technological knowledge, Rensselaer remains focused on solving global challenges with a spirit of ingenuity and collaboration. For more information, please visit http: // www.rpi.educate.

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