How Threatening Is the Coronavirus?

People wear protective face masks in London, England, March 2, 2020. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

Holman Jenkins makes the case that everyone is overreacting.

Meanwhile, this piece in the New York Times sheds some light on the debate over the death rate.

First, it notes the similarities with the flu:

For most people, the disease is probably not particularly deadly; health officials tend to put it somewhere within range of an unusually severe seasonal flu. Even in a global pandemic, it’s expected to kill fewer people than the flu virus. Data so far suggests that if you catch the coronavirus, you may be likelier to have no symptoms at all than to require hospitalization.

The coronavirus is thought to be much more dangerous for people over age 70 or with existing health conditions such as diabetes. This is also true of the flu.

On the other hand:

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But because the coronavirus spreads widely and quickly, it can overwhelm local health systems in a way that the flu does not.

This is thought to have driven the unusually high mortality rate in Hubei, the region of China where the coronavirus first spread. Officials, unprepared for the outbreak, were caught without sufficient hospital beds or health care workers, meaning that many people who might have survived with better care did not. In South Korea, where officials were better prepared, the mortality rate has been a fraction of that in Hubei — so far, about that of the flu.

One common thought on the death rate is that it is lower than advertised because of undetected, asymptotic cases. But this interview with a WHO official suggests, based on the experience of China, that this isn’t so:

There’s this big panic in the West over asymptomatic cases. Many people are asymptomatic when tested, but develop symptoms within a day or two.

In Guangdong, they went back and retested 320,000 samples originally taken for influenza surveillance and other screening. Less than 0.5 percent came up positive, which is about the same number as the 1,500 known Covid cases in the province. (Covid-19 is the medical name of the illness caused by the coronavirus.)

There is no evidence that we’re seeing only the tip of a grand iceberg, with nine-tenths of it made up of hidden zombies shedding virus. What we’re seeing is a pyramid: most of it is aboveground.

Once we can test antibodies in a bunch of people, maybe I’ll be saying, “Guess what? Those data didn’t tell us the story.” But the data we have now don’t support it.

The entire interview is worth reading. The Chinese badly mishandled this crisis at the outset, but their response since the outbreak appears to have been highly effective.

This is a good thread on the question of the death rate:

And, finally, in terms of containment, this thread on the difference that “social distancing” measures made during prior epidemics is worth reading:

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