There has been some tantalizingly good news about the coronavirus in the past few days, not that you’d know it from the end-of-the-world treatment it gets in the press.
Of the 10 countries with the most COVID-19 cases, five showed declines in new reported cases over the past few days. In France, the number has been flat for days.
There have been a tiny number of new cases reported in China since early March, according to data from Worldometers.info. In South Korea, the number of new cases has stabilized at around 100 a day.
Meanwhile, at the time this editorial posted, data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that – when measured by date of onset rather than the day officially reported — the number of new COVID-19 cases peaked on March 9 at 194, then dropped to 172 on March 10. It was 174 on March 11. It plunged to 122 on March 12, although the CDC cautions that there may be onsets that day that haven’t been reported yet. In any case, all this was before the most draconian restrictions were put in place.
It’s far too early to draw any conclusions, but it certainly doesn’t look like an out-of-control plague, as commonly depicted by the press.
Meanwhile, two studies have come out showing that fatality rates form the disease are far lower than earlier warnings – which prompted those restrictions – claimed.
On Thursday, the journal Nature Medicine reported findings out of the University of Hong Kong that the death rate in China’s Wuhan province, where the disease originated, was 1.4%. That’s several percentage points lower than previous estimates, and far below the World Health Organization’s horrifying pronouncement in early March of a 3.4% death rate.
The Hong Kong researchers also found that the risk of dying was heavily concentrated among older people. For those over 64, the fatality rate was 2.4%. For those under 64, it dropped to 0.5%. For those younger than 15, the researchers found the fatality rate was zero.
These findings were actually available a week ago, when the draft paper started to circulate. But few noted the findings. Even when the study was officially published late last week, only a few major news outlets bothered to cover it.
Then there are the findings from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, on which passengers were quarantined for weeks after an outbreak.
The researchers reviewing the data found that of the 3,711 people on board, only 17% got the disease, despite the fact all passengers were likely exposed. Of those diagnosed as having the disease, 8 have died.
The researchers note that the population of the cruise ship was much older than the general population. In fact, a third of the passengers were 70 or older, the age group that accounted for all the deaths.
John Ioannidis, writing for Stat News, said that based on these findings, “reasonable estimates for the case fatality ratio in the general U.S. population vary from 0.05% to 1%.” In other words, very much like the seasonal flu.
Why do these studies matter? Because if the death rates from coronavirus are that low, the draconian measures to prevent its spread would be completely uncalled for.
As Ioannidis notes: “Locking down the world with potentially tremendous social and financial consequences may be totally irrational.”
A lower death rate also makes it more likely that the public safety measures would kill more people than they save, because of the additional lives lost to things like increased levels of known killers like stress, depression, poverty.
To be sure, the recent trend data might just be a blip, and these two studies involve relatively small sample sizes and come with lots of caveats. We’re not saying the COVID-19 is nothing to worry about.
But these recent developments do raise a question. Will the news media report good news as aggressively as they’ve been reporting the bad?
So far, it doesn’t look that way.