It has been a major priority of scientists since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak to determine two things: How infectious this disease is and how deadly it is for those that catch it. Unfortunately, because dealing with a novel virus means learning from the ground up, there has been a lot of misinformation and uncertainty surrounding these questions since January. At one point, the World Health Organization pegged the fatality rate at an astounding 3.4%, with percentages rising to more than 10% for those above the age of 75 and those with certain preexisting conditions. It’s a wonder we didn’t weld the whole world into their houses with those kinds of numbers out there.
But even as more data came clear, the fatality rate remained frightening. The now-discredited Imperial College London model told us that the Infection Fatality Rate was somewhere around 1%. Not as bad as the WHO’s insane number, but still really bad. Still 10 times more deadly than the flu, a stat that is still deceptively light because the coronavirus appears to be so much more infectious than the average flu. It was off this 1% number that American officials warned of a death toll that could surge into the millions.
But now, after we used that 1% figure to inspire fear and induce government lockdowns, it turns out that things may be much less serious after all. In a new release this week called “COVID-19 Pandemic Planning Scenarios,” the CDC surmises that their current best estimate for the fatality rate of those who are both infected and showing symptoms is around 0.4%. That’s quite a drop.
But it gets better, because the CDC also estimates that approximately 35% of all those who get the coronavirus remain asymptomatic throughout the life of the infection. Put those two together and you get a total fatality rate of only 0.26%. That’s still twice as bad as the seasonal flu, but is it bad enough to shut down the entire economy?
The agency warned that with further study, the numbers could still change.
“The parameter values in each scenario will be updated and augmented over time, as we learn more about the epidemiology of COVID-19,” the CDC wrote. “New data on COVID-19 is available daily; information about its biological and epidemiological characteristics remain[s] limited, and uncertainty remains around nearly all parameter values.”
Surely, though, it’s a safe assumption that today’s “best estimates” are better than those we were working with four months ago. And thus, with this new data in hand, it’s time for politicians, businesses, and individuals to make a better-informed decision about getting back to normal.