Photo of Alessandro Vespignani at his desk.

He predicted the widespread Covid-19 pandemic early on. Now he’s being knighted by the Italian government.

Alessandro Vespignani doesn’t see himself as an oracle, and yet he saw it coming. The terrifying future was right there in the professor’s data.

“I remember that day as the heaviest in my life,” says Vespignani, director of the Network Science Institute at Northeastern. “I went home and…” he trails off. “You don’t even know how to communicate to your family something like that.”

It was February 12, 2020.

In his research, Vespignani models the possible scenarios for how a disease might spread. He’d been using data from around the world to simulate how and when outbreaks of COVID-19 might occur since the disease first emerged as a threat. And by the middle of February, the coronavirus that causes the disease was already traveling around the world. Vespignani’s simulations forecast that major outbreaks would be raging in many nations around the world in March, making the disease a pandemic. He called his research team into a meeting.

“I remember that I said to the team, ‘Let’s go back and redo everything. We need to be not double but triple sure that this is the case,’” he says. The team went over the data again, and again. “But we already knew that it was.”

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Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University.