The COVID-19 Mortality Rate is 2.5 Times that of the Seasonal Flu
Early in the epidemic, public-health experts feared the virus might kill up to 2 percent of those infected, potentially causing millions of deaths in the United States and tens of millions worldwide. Those terrifying estimates prompted the lockdowns that have done incalculable harm to the economy, shattered small businesses and left children traumatized and untold numbers suffering from brutal isolation.
But we now know much more about the virus. And we know its lethality is lower than we originally feared — and highly concentrated in the very elderly and people with serious health problems.
In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in May that the coronavirus kills about 0.26 percent of the people it infects, about 1 in 400 people. New estimates from Sweden suggest that only 1 in 10,000 people under 50 will die from the virus, compared to 1 in 14 of people over 80 and 1 in 6 of those over 90.
Estimates for the coronavirus’ lethality have fallen so sharply because calculating the so-called infection fatality rate requires scientists and physicians to know both the total number of deaths and the total number of people infected.
Tracking deaths is relatively easy. But tracking infections can be tough. Many people who are infected with respiratory viruses like influenza or the novel coronavirus have only mild symptoms or none. They may never be tested or even know they are infected.
Thus, in the early stages of an epidemic, scientists must guess at the number of mild and hidden infections.
Probably the best way to discover the real number is through antibody tests, which measure how many people have already been infected and recovered — even if they never had symptoms.