Coronavirus vs. the Flu: The Difference Between a 1% and 0.1% Fatality Rate Is Huge

Anthony Fauci discusses the coronavirus outbreak with the media outside the White House, March 12, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

In congressional testimony this week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the top medical experts in the Trump administration, said that the new coronavirus “is ten times more lethal than the seasonal flu.”

On his radio show Wednesday, Rush Limbaugh was outraged that media reports focused on Fauci’s comparison between the coronavirus’s 1 percent fatality rate and the seasonal flu’s 0.1 percent fatality rate. Fauci also noted that the coronavirus’s fatality rate is much lower than what has been reported by the World Health Organization. The 3 percent fatality rate cited by WHO, said Fauci, does not account for many minimally symptomatic and asymptomatic cases.

And that’s the real story, Limbaugh said on his program: 

Ten times more lethal? Lethal than what? What does “lethal” mean? Does lethal kill you? Does lethal infect you? Does lethal give you a temperature of 102 versus 100? What does it do to you? It’s a meaningless comparative. Ten times more lethal? The only thing worth knowing in this story is that Anthony Fauci says the fatality rate to coronavirus is much less than what they believed.

It is 1 percent. It is not between 3 and 6 percent, and that number, 3 percent and 6 percent, has been out there for a couple of weeks.

To answer Limbaugh’s question — What does “ten times more lethal” mean? — the math is simple. If 40 million Americans get the seasonal flu, a 0.1 percent fatality rate means 40,000 deaths. If 40 million Americans get the new coronavirus, a 1 percent fatality rate means 400,000 deaths.

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So the difference between a 0.1 percent and a 1.0 percent fatality rate could be 360,000 dead Americans.

Emphasis on could be. Fauci was directly asked during his congressional testimony how many Americans will get the coronavirus and how many will die. “It is going to be totally dependent on how we respond to it. So, I can’t give you a number,” Fauci replied. “If we are complacent and don’t do really aggressive containment and mitigation, the number could go way up . . . many, many millions.”

The difference in fatality rates explains why extreme measures are being taken to combat the coronavirus but not the seasonal flu. As Justin Fox reported at Bloomberg:

Influenza can’t be controlled because as much as half the transmission of the disease occurs before symptoms appear. With Covid-19 that proportion seems to be lower, meaning that even though it’s more contagious than influenza once symptoms appear, it may be possible to control by testing widely and quickly isolating those who have the disease. This is one reason (there are others) the WHO’s Tedros won’t call it a pandemic. “The threat of a pandemic has become very real,” he said Monday. “But it would be the first pandemic in history that could be controlled.” H1N1 [swine flu] couldn’t be controlled in 2009, but was mild enough that this did not lead to disaster. Covid-19 is a much more dangerous disease that maybe, just maybe, can be stopped.

Exponential growth of some diseases means that the number of Americans infected can multiply from a single case to 60 million in a year, as was the case with the H1N1 swine flu in 2009. (The swine flu had a fatality rate of only 0.02 percent, so only 12,500 Americans died.)

Yet many opposed to the “social distancing” measures being imposed right now in America don’t even acknowledge how much higher the fatality rate of the new coronavirus is than that of the flu.

For example, Heather MacDonald writes at The New Criterion: “There were 34,200 deaths in the United States during the 2018–19 influenza season, estimates the cdc. We did not shut down public events and institutions to try to slow the spread of the flu.”

Those who suggest that the coronavirus presents no greater threat than does the seasonal flu need to answer some questions:

  • Why are Italian hospitals being overrun with Covid-19 patients, and why doesn’t that happen with the seasonal flu? Why can’t that happen here?
  • Why are the Iranians digging mass graves that are visible from outer space?
  • Why did Communist China — a regime that cares much more about national strength than about human life — shut down factories and bring its economy to the brink of recession in an effort to contain the spread of the virus?
  • Why did Japan announce a month-long closure of all schools two weeks ago, when there were only four coronavirus deaths in the entire country?
  • Are we supposed to believe that the Japanese, South Koreans, and Chinese are panicky idiots who don’t understand math and science?

We don’t have to rely on (positive!) national stereotypes to grasp the size of the threat, of course. We Americans can do the elementary math ourselves. If tens of millions of Americans get a disease with a 1 percent fatality rate, it would be a national catastrophe.

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