I wrote a few days ago about a couple of small pieces of data that support the idea that the death rate of COVID-19 is much lower than we’re currently being led to believe. The World Health Organization has placed an official death rate of 3.4% on the virus, but that number has been roundly criticized by health professionals — even though there are some regions (Northern Italy) where the death rate seems to be even higher than the WHO’s number. Most professionals believe the actual death rate is somewhere around 1%, or perhaps lower.
The journal Science published a study on Monday, which concluded that 86% of coronavirus patients aren’t diagnosed. The main takeaway from the study was supposed to be that all the undiagnosed patients creates an environment for rapid dissemination of the virus — and that’s certainly a finding worth discussing. However, in a world where we’ve long since lost the ability to contain COVID-19 and virtually every nation is focused on mitigating it instead, it’s interesting to look at what this means for the virus’s death rate, if true.
According to the latest tally from John Hopkins University, there are 197,126 cases of coronavirus that have been confirmed around the world, resulting in 7,905 deaths (meaning 4.0% of known infections have resulted in death). In the U.S., there have been 6,362 confirmed cases, resulting in 108 deaths (meaning 1.7% of the known infections in the U.S. have resulted in death).
But if 86% of coronavirus cases are never diagnosed due to mild symptoms or patients who are asymptomatic, there have been around 1.4 million cases worldwide, which would drop the death rate to 0.6%. And there have been about 45,400 cases in the U.S., which would drop the death rate here to an incredibly low 0.2% — or just about double the death rate for seasonal flu in a typical year.*
That would put the global death rate of coronavirus in line with what researchers determined was the death rate (0.5%) based on their study of data from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which I discussed in the earlier post.
For now, the rate at which COVID-19 is killing its victims will remain a source of great speculation. In South Korea, where the response to the virus outbreak has been lauded as an example for the rest of the world, a death rate of 0.6% has been highly publicized. But that death rate — a simple calculation based on fatalities vs. known infections — has been creeping up over the last few days, and is now at 1.0%. (Nonetheless, South Korea’s death rate continues to lag behind much of the rest of the world, and if it was assumed that 86% of coronavirus cases in that nation are going undetected, the true death rate would be a relatively minor 0.1%. However, another point to keep in mind is that South Korea has used extensive testing, about 274,000 as of yesterday, in a nation of 51.5 million people. Contrast that with the U.S., where 25,000 people have been tested out of 327 million. If we’re assuming that 86% of infected people aren’t being diagnosed, it’s probably safe to say that figure doesn’t hold true in South Korea.)
*Keep in mind that coronavirus still poses a greater risk than seasonal flu, even if we assume these studies and statistics to be true — primarily because of its greater transmission rate. If you assume eventual infection of 50% of the U.S. population, which some studies have projected to be true without intervention, then even with a 0.2% death rate, a simple calculation would indicate 326,000 deaths. That’s not exactly a scientific calculation, but still … that would be almost 15 times as many people as have died from the flu this year, according to CDC estimates.