About 0.1% to 0.5% of people will die from seasonal flu, compared to what researchers believe is closer to 3.2% from COVID-19 – 30 times more people.
The 2019 novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has spread like wildfire across the world. At press time, nearly 125,000 cases had been reported to the World Health Organization from 118 countries and territories. The number of cases reported outside China in the last two weeks has increased 13-fold as countries put travel and social restrictions in place in an effort to quell the flames.
What is the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 – and will we survive?
According to Daniel Grupel, the head of Infection Control Services at Samson Assuta Ashdod University Hospital, COVID-19 is more contagious and more lethal than influenza, and should be distinguished from more commonly known coronaviruses that cause SARS and MERS.
The data, in his words, “is pretty conclusive:”
A person sick with seasonal flu will infect between 1.3 and 1.5 other people. Someone sick with COVID-19 will infect 2.3 people.
About 0.1% to 0.5% of people will die from seasonal flu, compared to what WHO officials believe is closer to 3.2% from COVID-19 – up to 30 times more people.
Grupel said that “these numbers are moving targets and may change as we gather more information,” but he believes that the international public must pull together and “fight this virus.”
As mentioned, the novel coronavirus, officially called SARS-CoV-2, is not the world’s only coronavirus. There are many different strains, most of them only causing illness in animals. However, the Merck Manual explains that there are seven coronaviruses known to cause illness in humans – and three of them can be much more severe than the others or even deadly. These three are MERS-CoV, SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 – the current novel coronavirus.
MERS – Middle East Respiratory Syndrome – was first identified in 2012 in Jordan and Saudi Arabia. According to the Merck Manual, as early as 2018, there were 2,220 confirmed cases of MERS and 790 deaths – most in Saudi Arabia. There were also small outbreaks in 2014 and 2015.
But as those numbers show, “MERS is much less contagious than COVID-19,” Grupel said, “one person will infect an average of 0.75 people.”
However, the mortality rate is around 30%.
Grupel said that when less than one person is infected by each afflicted person, “you don’t have a sustainable epidemic.”
In the case of MERS, while human-to-human infection is possible through close contact, it remains a virus largely transmitted from animals to humans. In several Middle Eastern countries, “dromedary camels are suspected of being the primary source of infection for people, but how the virus spreads from camels to people is unknown,” the Merck Manual says.
SARS – Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome – was first detected in China in 2002. It was followed by a worldwide outbreak, infecting around 8,000 people, including in Canada and the United States. More than 800 people had died from the virus by mid 2003. But no cases have been reported since 2004, hence the virus is considered to be eradicated.
“We know SARS was as infectious with a ratio of about 1 to 3 and the fatality rate was around 10%,” Grupel said. “But while MERS never went away and we still see sporadic, small scale outbreaks of MERS – and we expect it to stay that way – SARS is gone.”
But Grupel said he does not expect COVID-19 to go away anytime soon.
“We can look at other respiratory viruses and know that things usually get better when the weather warms up,” he said. “There is less coughing, less transmission of viruses. But here [with COVID-19) we just don’t know.”
Moreover, he said that even if the virus does fizzle out in the hotter spring and summer months, it is “likely that it will become another seasonal virus we see coming and going. This coronavirus will stick around for the future.”
The novel coronavirus “has already mutated from an animal strain to a human strain and COVID-19 has a very effective human-to-human transmission.”
The only recourse, then, is to develop a vaccine or to mitigate the virus’s effects by “pulling together.”
Tedros on Thursday urged all countries to “take a comprehensive approach tailored to their circumstances – with containment as the central pillar” through a four-pronged strategy:
First, prepare and be ready.
Second, detect, prevent and treat through surveillance and treatment of those who test positive.
Third, reduce and suppress.
“To save lives we must reduce transmission,” Tedros said. “That means finding and isolating as many cases as possible, and quarantining their closest contacts. Even if you cannot stop transmission, you can slow it down and protect health facilities, old age homes and other vital areas.”
And fourth, innovate and improve.
“All countries must strike a fine balance between protecting health, preventing economic and social disruption, and respecting human rights,” Tedros continued.
Grupel said that in Israel people have to follow the Health Ministry’s recommendations and stop going outside when they are symptomatic or when they are supposed to be in quarantine, to avoid as much as possible the further spread of the virus.
“If all of us are responsible, we will succeed in fighting the virus,” Grupel said.
“This is a new virus and a new situation,” the director-general concluded. “All countries have lessons to share.”