No, coronavirus is not ‘much worse than flu’

Following my post yesterday, I have been told the reason Covid-19 warrants such an extreme and costly response (one that itself puts millions of people at increased risk through isolation and destitution) is because its mortality rate and infection rate are both well above that of ordinary flu.

This is incorrect. In terms of the mortality rate, the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has said that ‘a death rate of one fatality for every 1,000 cases was a “reasonable ballpark” figure, based on scientific modelling.’ This is 0.1 per cent, which is the same as flu.

There are viral flu epidemics every year. The US government estimates that last winter there were ‘at least 36 million flu illnesses, 370,000 hospitalizations and 22,000 deaths from flu.’ And that’s a pretty good year, apparently; some are much worse. According to official UK statistics more than 28,000 people died of flu in 2014. But we didn’t bat an eyelid (did you even know about it?), and we haven’t since then locked down our liberties, wrecked our economy or isolated our most vulnerable people every winter. Where is the sense of proportion?

Neither is coronavirus unusually infectious. The scientific model from Imperial College currently informing government policy is based on the experience in Italy and especially Lombardy and assumes exponential growth in infections. In fact, though, coronavirus has not shown signs of spreading at such a rate except in concentrated regions (Wuhan, Lombardy, London) for a short period of time.

Data from around the world suggest instead (so far) that new infections plateau after a week or two, and do not continue spreading everywhere (northern China and Singapore have not seen large outbreaks, for example). This appears to be largely independent of what measures are taken (though of course some are better than others, as South Korea has shown).

This pattern of infection makes coronavirus no bigger threat to human life than seasonal flu, and likely smaller (like SARS and avian flu before it). But even if it should turn out to be a somewhat larger threat, does it really warrant such an extraordinary response? All this economic damage, which harms real people and their jobs and livelihoods, and all this imposed isolation?

We can’t do this every time a flu-like virus does the rounds, even if it does sometimes turn out to be worse than the annual flu epidemic, which kills an estimated 650,000 every year.

We need to get a grip and get a sense of proportion back. Viruses go round. We need to be able to carry on regardless. Like we do every single winter.

UPDATE

A Swiss doctor reports:

‘Covid19 has so far been considered much more dangerous than the flu, particularly on the basis of data from the Chinese city of Wuhan. However, a new study by researchers from Japan and the US has now come to the conclusion that the mortality of Covid19 even in Wuhan was only 0.04% to 0.12% and therefore the same or even lower than that of seasonal flu, whose mortality is around 0.1%. As a reason for the apparently strongly overestimated mortality of Covid19, the researchers suspect that only a small part of the cases in Wuhan was initially recorded, since the disease probably remained symptomless or mild in many persons.’

8 thoughts on “No, coronavirus is not ‘much worse than flu’

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  1. The 0.1% mortality rate is if people have access to ICU and ventilators if required. If this capacity is overwhelmed the mortality rate is 5-10 times this, hence the projected 260,000 deaths if we do nothing as per the Imperial College study. Hence the social distancing reccs to keep us within NHS ventilator capacity.

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  2. I have to admit, as far as I know, what is happening is unprecedented in history.

    Iwonder what is the motivation is of the politicians who are (you imply) overreacting. Is this the work of the usual suspects mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 2? Is global governance the next thing? Are they all in the secret? It is suspicious that church is being interfered with.

    This could be Plan B, because the Plan A cover story, the climate change thing, is starting to wear a bit thin.

    Maybe “they” really believe that we need to cut carbon emissions. This seems quite an effective of doing that, stifling all protest. They’re downsizing the global economy. That reduces carbon emissions.

    Is the official version true? What that seems to be saying, reading between the lines, is that people die of flu unpredictably and unpreventably, so flu doesn’t place much demand on health service. The problem is that this bug is not lethal enough, so that people gradually start to realise they need to be in hospital and ask to be admitted. They know they can probably be saved, provided the hospital has the equipment to meet the demand. Whereas with flu, people just don’t wake up one morning, so never go near a hospital?

    A couple of analogies from war, to illustrate how less is sometimes more. It is more disruptive to surrender to an enemy that takes prisoners than to fight to the death, once it is realised one’s objective isn’t going to be achieved, so any deaths would be in vain. Secondly, an incendiary bomb that sets fire to a whole town unless fire brigade is deployed causes more trouble than one that blows a single building up.

    Is the problem that COVID-19 spreads too easily?

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  3. Mortality rate for 70-79 year olds is 8% and 80-89 14.9%: much higher than that 0.1% figure for the whole population. Normal influenza kills around 17,000 in England every year despite the most vulnerable having vaccinations which must suppress the total possible number of fatalities. There are only 4000 adult critical care beds available. The Government hopes to keep Covid-19 deaths down to 20,000 (with up to 260,000 from possible outcomes); and there is no vaccination suppression in the vulnerable for this yet. Presumably we should add the normal flu deaths onto the Covid deaths to see the total pressure on the NHS. If all critical care beds are occupied then more will die through lack of appropriate treatment. I think this is what is worrying the Government into taking drastic action.

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  4. Any dispassionate look at the mortality figures for Covid 19 (both the current UK figure and worst case possibilities) suggests that they’re unwelcome but nowhere near a cause for mass panic. And given that testing has, until today, been treated almost as an irrelevance, one has to assume that those mortality figures are almost certainly overestimates. So far in the UK the total deaths attributed to Covid 19 are insignificant as compared to the population’s annual mortality (over 600,000). So why has our government gone into headless chicken mode over the last 2 days and set about trashing the UK economy as fast as it can?

    Certainly when the alarm was first raised they should have tested all who entered the UK and given them advice on self isolation. And the lack of interest in testing people more generally was (and remains) extraordinary in a situation where factual knowledge is in such short supply. But the precautionary policy of bearing down on spread while maintaining economic activity made perfect sense: giving time for the NHS to gear up as best it could, allow some measure of herd immunity to grow as more people recover from their infections (most do), wait for warmer months to have some reductive effect. So the policy of careful personal hygiene and avoidance of unnecessary social gathering was proportionate while not damaging the economy too badly.

    But now the government has got in a panic (spooked by one academic study) and lost the sense of proportion which it is a government’s duty to keep (as leaders) in times of uncertainty. And our leaders are apparently convinced that insane and reckless destruction of the economy is the only sensible response to a blip of unknown but relatively small size in the population’s mortality figures.

    I’m not suggesting that the economy should be our god; but its unravelling will have a human cost that none of us should ever want to see – particularly if it comes about from avoidable folly. Could it be that we are seeing a rather clear demonstration of how folly starts to grip a nation when it turns its back on God? Even we Christians see death as the last enemy, but we know that Jesus has defeated it on our behalf if we accept him as our saviour. A nation (and its leaders) that no longer has that hope can not look death in the face with anything other than despair: even the thought of it must be avoided at any cost.

    At that point, it’s probably unreasonable to expect our leaders to be able to keep a sense of proportion. And that’s what should really worry us.

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