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Thomas Gallatin / Mar. 26, 2020

How Deadly Is the China Virus?

There's much to learn, but the highly contagious virus may not have near the mortality rate some fear.

As the numbers of infected and of those dying from the global China Virus pandemic continue to increase exponentially on a daily basis, the question many Americans may be asking is this: How deadly is this virus? Is it worse than the flu, which kills between 20,000 and 60,000 Americans every year? Well, as testing has yet to catch up with this rapidly expanding disease, we are currently left only with educated guesses — guesses that seem to keep changing at the rate the virus spreads.

What has been established is that COVID-19 is highly contagious, likely three to four times as contagious as the annual flu. In fact, it is this high contagious rate that has governments, including cities, counties, and states around the U.S., shutting down vast swaths of the economy and issuing quarantines and shelter-in-place directives in the hopes of preventing hospitals and medical facilities from becoming overwhelmed.

However, adding to the confusion and unease are seemingly vastly divergent fatality rates coming from different countries. For example, the COVID-19 fatality rate being reported out of Italy is a frightening 10%, whereas South Korea, which saw an early high number of infections, has seemingly contained them and maintained a much lower fatality rate of 1.38%. Currently the U.S. COVID-19 fatality rate is 1.5%. What accounts for such drastically different results? Several educated opinions have been proposed, such as the fact that the virus is most dangerous to the elderly and Italy happens to have the fifth-oldest population on the planet. But that is far from conclusive regarding the disparity of results.

The Wall Street Journal recently observed that the COVID-19 mortality rate may actually be much lower than the current World Health Organization estimate of 3.4%. Using the last data, the Journal notes, “The epidemic started in China sometime in November or December. The first confirmed U.S. cases included a person who traveled from Wuhan on Jan. 15, and it is likely that the virus entered before that: Tens of thousands of people traveled from Wuhan to the U.S. in December. Existing evidence suggests that the virus is highly transmissible and that the number of infections doubles roughly every three days. An epidemic seed on Jan. 1 implies that by March 9 about six million people in the U.S. would have been infected. As of March 23, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 499 Covid-19 deaths in the U.S. If our surmise of six million cases is accurate, that’s a mortality rate of 0.01%, assuming a two week lag between infection and death. This is one-tenth of the flu mortality rate of 0.1%. Such a low death rate would be cause for optimism.”

Indeed, that would be cause for optimism, but it also means the sobering reality that even at that lower estimated mortality rate, COVID-19 will likely end up killing between 20,000 and 40,000 Americans. In the grand scheme of things, of course, death is a reality none of us will escape. We have been fortunate to live at a time in history where our technological innovations and medical developments have led to Americans living longer, healthier lives. Many of us are not confronted by the reality of death on a regular basis, so we fall into the luxury of not thinking about it. We hope this pandemic will make clear the reality of the frailty and preciousness of life, and cause us to soberly contemplate that deeper, higher, and more significant truth — our eternal destiny.

(Corrected for mortality versus fatality rate, and edited for clarity.)

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