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The novel coronavirus might be even deadlier than 1918 Spanish flu

Published Aug 14th, 2020 7:26PM EDT
Coronavirus Death
Image: Vadim/Adobe

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  • Coronavirus deaths might be comparable to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, researchers said in a new study.
  • COVID-19 is deadlier than the regular flu that still kills thousands of people every year.
  • The new study says that the advancements of modern medicine are responsible for a lower mortality rate than the 1918 pandemic, but if left untreated, COVID-19 could have comparable mortality to the Spanish flu.

Comparisons to the flu were common in the early days of the novel coronavirus pandemic, but it soon became clear that the illness did not behave like the flu. The coronavirus is far more contagious. Also, patients can be asymptomatic, or they can exhibit all sorts of symptoms, including unusual ones that might not necessarily be associated with an infectious disease. Finally, we learned that COVID-19 can leave long-lasting effects on the bodies of survivors, and that it kills more people than the seasonal flu.

Without universal access to effective treatment, we have to continue to socially distance, wear face masks, and wash our hands as often as possible. A new study suggests that COVID-19 could be even more devastating than the 1918pandemic when you take into account the advances of modern medicine.

Researchers compared the mortality of the 1918 flu pandemic to COVID-19 deaths and found that the novel coronavirus is at least as deadly as the flu that ravaged the world more than a century ago.

“What we want people to know is that this has 1918 potential,” Dr. Jeremy Faust told CNBC. “This is not something to just shrug off like the flu.” He said that the outbreak in New York was at least 70% as bad as the one in 1918 when doctors did not have ventilators and other medical advances that could have helped them save lives.

“If insufficiently treated, SARS-CoV-2 infection may have comparable or greater mortality than 1918 H1N1 influenza virus infection,” the researchers wrote in the paper, which was published in the JAMA Network Open journal.

The scientists looked at data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and the US Census Bureau for their analysis. They compared excess deaths in New York City during the peak of the 1918 pandemic with the COVID-19 deaths in the first months of the outbreak.

The flu deaths were higher overall, but they were comparable to the deaths observed in New York in the first two months of the COVID-19 pandemic. “However, because baseline mortality rates from 2017 to 2019 were less than half that observed from 1914 to 1917 (owing to improvements in hygiene and modern achievements in medicine, public health, and safety), the relative increase during early COVID-19 period was substantially greater than during the peak of the 1918 H1N1 influenza pandemic,” the researchers wrote.

The researchers said the main limitation of the study is that the direct comparison of the 1918 H1N1 strain and the SARS-CoV-2 virus is not possible. Also, it’s unknown how many deaths of COVID-19 were prevented because of access to modern inventions that were not available during the 1918 flu pandemic.

Even so, the findings can serve as a warning of the worst case scenario. If outbreaks can’t be contained, there may be scenarios where hospitals won’t have enough resources to treat all patients. It’s not enough to have modern medicine on your side if your local hospital can’t handle the flood of cases.

“We believe that our findings may help officials and the public contextualize the unusual magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to more prudent policies that may help to decrease transmission by decreasing the effective reproduction number of SARS-CoV-2 and prevent the exhaustion of essential supplies of life-saving resources in the coming weeks and beyond,” the researchers wrote.

There’s also good news in this warning. Modern medicine does work against an unknown pathogen like the novel coronavirus. And COVID-19 therapy might get even better in the not so distant future.

The 1918 pandemic killed 50 million people worldwide according to estimate. COVID-19 killed more than 750,000 people as of Friday afternoon, out of more than 21.27 million cases. The US registered the world’s largest number of COVID-19 cases, at more than 5.4 million, and the most deaths, at over 170,000.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.