It's Official: Covid-19 Is Not "Just Another Flu"

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL, APRIL 6 2020: A person with Covid-19 is buried in a cemetery by gravediggers wearing HAZMAT suits to protect against the infection in Rio de Janeiro. Photocarioca/Shutterstock

It’s official: Covid-19 is deadlier than the seasonal flu.

That’s the conclusion of a new study led by the University of Washington that looked to find the national death rate among people in the US infected with SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19. Reported in the journal Health Affairs, their statistical model found that people who display symptoms of Covid-19 have a fatality rate of around 1.3 percent. For comparison, the rate of death for the seasonal flu is 0.1 percent.

“COVID-19 infection is deadlier than flu — we can put that debate to rest,” Anirban Basu, study author and professor of health economics at the UW School of Pharmacy, said in a statement.

The researchers gathered the data from the UW Choice Institute School of Pharmacy's Covid-19 platform, which looks at infection and fatality rates by US counties for people with symptoms. Out of the areas that contained enough robust data (116 counties in 33 states), the infection fatality rate in the US was estimated to be 1.3 percent, with county-specific rates varying between  0.5 percent to 3.6 percent.

While it’s worth remembering that many people can be infected with Covid-19 and only experience minimal to no symptoms, the statistics are still jarring.

The researchers say the conservative estimate of 20 percent of the US population becoming infected by the end of this year could result in the number of deaths climbing to between 350,000 and 1.2 million. However, they were quick to add that these projections are subject to change depending on the public health response to the ongoing crisis. 

“This is a staggering number, which can only be brought down with sound public health measures,” Professor Basu said.

“The overall estimate can both increase or decrease in the future, depending on the demographics where the infections will be spreading. It is possible, as the infection spreads to more rural counties of the country, the overall infection fatality rate will increase due to the lack of access to necessary health care delivery.”

This research isn't the first to conclude that Covid-19 is not “just another flu.” Last week, an article in JAMA Internal Medicine found Covid-19 causes 20 times more deaths per week compared to the seasonal flu even in the deadliest week of an average influenza season.

Writing in the report, Dr Carlos del Rio and Dr Jeremy Faust say that politicians and public figures often draw comparisons between seasonal influenza and SARS-CoV-2 mortality “in an attempt to minimize the effects of the unfolding pandemic.” However, they argue these comparisons are based on misleading assumptions and the fact that the number of people killed by influenza isn't reported in the same way as Covid-19 deaths. If the two diseases are contrasted with an "apples-to-apples comparison," they argue, then the stark reality of the Covid-19 pandemic becomes all the clearer. 

“Although officials may say that SARS-CoV-2 is ‘just another flu,’ this is not true,” the researchers conclude.  

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