Coronavirus is much deadlier than the flu, whichever data you use

A funeral in Illinois
(Image credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Researchers are still learning a lot about the COVID-19 coronavirus: what it does to the body, what other animals it infects — dogs, for example — how to treat the disease, and, of course, how contagious and lethal the new virus is for humans. Antibody tests, designed to determine how many people have been infected with the coronavirus, suggest the coronavirus is less fatal for the average individual, and far more contagious, than originally believed.

Some people, largely conservative opinion journalists, cite the serology data to argue the coronavirus outbreak is no more deadly than the seasonal flu and the U.S. has overreacted. Infectious disease experts come to the opposite conclusion. "I think it is the worst pandemic since 1918," Cecile Viboud, an epidemiologist at the National Institutes of Health's Fogarty International Center, tells The Washington Post.

There are two fatality rates: the case fatality rate, measuring symptomatic COVID-19 patients who die, and the infection fatality rate, which covers everyone infected with the coronavirus. The case fatality rates "have been about 6 percent globally as well as in the United States," the Post reports, while the infection fatality rate is now believed — based on antibody tests — to be anywhere from 0.5 percent to 0.8 percent. You may have read that the seasonal flu has a fatality rate of 0.1 percent, but that's the case fatality rate. So even if the coronavirus infection fatality rate is 0.2 percent, as a controversial study of California's Santa Clara County suggested, "it would still be deadlier than the flu," the Post notes.

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As of Wednesday morning, the U.S. has reported more than a million COVID-19 infections and 58,355 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins. But that's almost certainly undercounting both numbers. New Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data analyzed by The New York Times show that total deaths in seven states were 50 percent higher than usual from March 8 to April 11.

The CDC will eventually count and sort these thousands of "excess deaths," the Times reports, but "right now, they are the most useful tool, several epidemiologists said, for measuring the impact of coronavirus in the United States" and around the world — and the deaths are clearly "far more than during a typical bad flu season."

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