How coronavirus compares to flu, Ebola, and other major outbreaks


National Geographic


THE NOVEL CORONAVIRUS that originated in Wuhan, China, has swept across the globe. But a persistent question has permeated the public consciousness: Is this new viral terror less or more dangerous than other infectious diseases?

Health officials and regular citizens set their priorities based on the general risk to the public. This week, the World Health Organization announced plans to dole out $675 million on the barely month-old outbreak of novel coronavirus. By contrast, the agency has raised a third of this amount from international partners to combat the Ebola epidemic in central Africa, which has been raging since August 2018.



Pitting these hazards against each other calls on a complicated calculus, which weighs factors like how contagious a disease is versus fatalities and severe outcomes, versus the socioeconomic ramifications of locking down a region. Influenza—whether it be seasonal or an emerging strain like H1N1—can infect millions of people, but it kills a relatively low portion of its cases, about 0.1 percent. Pandemic coronaviruses—like SARS, MERS, and the novel strain from China—are far more severe. SARS killed about 10 percent of its cases, but it only created about 8,000 confirmed infections.


At the moment, the novel coronavirus has far surpassed SARS in terms of known infections, and it has a case-fatality ratio of 2 percent: In effect, the coronavirus is 20 times as deadly as influenza. Some scientists argue that the novel virus will burn out quickly—but that's not what happened with MERS, which has remained endemic in the Middle East since 2012.


he concern is that if the novel coronavirus reaches millions of people, it could be extremely harmful. Those worries are compounded by the fact that there is no specific treatment for the novel coronavirus, unlike with the flu vaccine. A human trial of an antiviral remedy called lopinavir-ritonavir would hopefully be completed in a month’s time, Maria Van Kerkhove, an infectious disease epidemiologist who tackled the MERS crisis and the technical leader for WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, said: This drug combination has been used in the past to fight HIV.

As draconian and old-school as it may seem, quarantine remains one of the most valuable ways to control outbreaks. WHO credits quarantines and isolation for ultimately containing the SARS outbreak. And given that coronavirus, like influenza, spreads via close contact and over short distances, physical separation makes sense to some degree


Research shows that hospital quarantines can be cost-effective, but at-home quarantines, social distancing, and travel restrictions come with the high price of disrupting commerce, even for low- and middle-income countries. China lost $55 billion in productivity during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak and $40 billion during the SARS episode, according to the Wall Street Journal.