Scientists can’t tell yet how deadly the new virus that’s spreading around the globe really is. What deepens the mystery is the fact that the fatality rate differs even within China. As infections of the virus that causes COVID-19 surge in other countries, even a low fatality rate can add up to lots of victims, and understanding why one place fares better than another becomes critical to unravel.
“You could have bad outcomes with this initially until you really get the hang of how to manage” it, Dr Bruce Aylward, the World Health Organisation envoy who led a team of scientists just back from China, warned on Tuesday.
- In the central China city of Wuhan, where the new coronavirus first exploded, 2 per cent to 4 per cent of patients have died.
- But in the rest of hard-hit China, the death rate was strikingly lower, 0.7 per cent.
- There’s nothing different about the virus from one place to another. Instead, the never-before-seen strain of coronavirus struck Wuhan fast before anyone knew what the illness was and overwhelmed health facilities.
- While there are no specific treatments for COVID-19, earlier supportive care may help, too.
- In China, 80 per cent of patients are mildly ill when the virus is detected, compared with 13 per cent who already are severely ill. While the sickest to start with are at highest risk of death, a fraction of the mildly ill do go on to die for unknown reasons.
- On average, however, WHO says people with mild cases recover in about two weeks, while those who are sicker can take anywhere from three to six weeks.
How it is Spreading Outside China
Until the past week, most people diagnosed outside of China had become infected while travelling there. People who travel generally are healthier and thus may be better able to recover. And countries began screening returning travellers, spotting infections far earlier in places where the medical system wasn’t already strained. That’s now changing, with clusters of cases in Japan, Italy and Iran, and the death toll outside of China growing.
WHO has cautioned that authorities should be careful of artificially high death rates early on: Some of those countries likely are seeing the sickest patients at first and missing milder cases, just like Wuhan did.
How it is Different from Flu
Influenza (“the flu”) and COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, are both infectious respiratory illnesses. Although the symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu can look similar, the two illnesses are caused by different viruses.
Flu is a different virus family, and some strains are deadlier than others. On average, the death rate from seasonal flu is about 0.1 per cent, said Dr Anthony Fauci of the US National Institutes of Health. That’s far lower than what has been calculated so far for COVID-19.
But millions of people get the flu every year around the world, leading to an annual death toll in the hundreds of thousands. Older people, especially those with chronic illnesses such as heart or lung diseases, are more at risk. Among younger people, deaths are rarer.