The COVID-19 coronavirus is a brand new pathogen that humans still don’t know much about. Scientists from around the world have been researching the cases since the outbreak was first reported to learn as much as they can and while there continues to be disagreements about the origin and severity of the illness, most experts seem to agree that this situation is not something to be taken lightly.
However, for a variety of different reasons, there has been an effort among politicians and some media pundits, to downplay the severity of the threat. Previous outbreaks like SARS or Ebola were contained before they created any major clusters in the United States or Europe, which has given many westerners a false sense of security that they are somehow safer from pathogens than the rest of the world is, as the New York Times pointed out in a recent article.
The SARS and Ebola outbreaks were still very serious problems in China and Africa, but many people abroad, especially in the US, believe that the threats of these illnesses were overblown by the media the time, simply because it wasn’t happening in their back yard. It has also been pointed out that COVID-19 seems far less deadly than both Ebola and SARS, but this is a bit misleading. SARS and Ebola may have an extremely high mortality rate in comparison to the new virus, but were both contained relatively quickly because they are not extremely easy to pass from human to human. Meanwhile, the novel coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 infection is much more transmissible than SARS or Ebola, and is even more contagious than the seasonal flu.
Jeremy Brown, MD, director of the Office of Emergency Care Research at the National Institutes of Health and author of Influenza: The Hundred-Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History, told Health.com that “In public health, we measure something called the R0 (pronounced ‘R-naught’) which is the average number of people infected by a person with the virus. We are still not sure what the R0 is for coronavirus, but it appears to be about 2.0, which is about the same as SARS. These are early estimates though and are likely to change as we get better data.”
Estimations of the R0 for the new virus vary from 2.0 to 3.5, while the R0 for the seasonal flu is about 1.3, meaning that it is about twice as infectious as the flu. The incubation period of the novel coronavirus is another unique trait that increases its ability to spread. The seasonal flu has an incubation period of between 1 and 4 days on average, which means that someone gets sick just a few days after they are infected.
Some studies have suggested that the time of incubation of this new virus could be up to 24 or even 27 days, meaning that an infected patient could be walking around for a month infecting other people without even knowing that they are sick, which greatly increases the pathogen’s ability to spread.
COVID-19 is also much more dangerous than the flu. The flu has a mortality rate of roughly .1%, while the preliminary estimations of the mortality rate for the novel coronavirus are around 2-3% or higher.
This virus is very different from the flu in many ways, and it is orders of magnitude more contagious and deadly than the flu, but because there is some overlap in symptoms, there have been some misleading comparisons made between the two.
In the early days of the outbreak, many journalists and even some doctors suggested that we should be more concerned about the flu, citing the hundreds of thousands of people around the world who are killed each year by the seasonal virus. These statistics are accurate, but once again, misleading. The seasonal flu is endemic in many parts of the world, meaning that the virus is so widespread and has been around for so long that we have a very high chance of running into it. The novel coronavirus has only been around for a few months, but if it were to become endemic, as the flu is, the infection rate and death toll for COVID-19 would far surpass the seasonal flu. Now that it appears that the coronavirus could end up making roots in communities across the world and become endemic, very few experts are still making the flu comparison.
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