Our Fears About Coronavirus Are Overblown

March 11, 2020
Commuters with protective face masks in Bangkok, Thailand, to protect from the coronavirus, Jan. 30, 2020. (Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images)

So, how worried should you be about coronavirus?

If you follow the news every day, the answer seems obvious: extraordinarily worried. Airline stocks have been dropping precipitously; broken supply chains in China have disrupted world markets; the stock market seems unable to price in uncertainty regarding the extent of coronavirus’s impact.

But here’s the reality: if you’re under the age of 70, healthy and living in the United States, your chances of dying from coronavirus are, by nearly all accounts, extraordinarily low.

Here are some things to consider.

There are likely far more coronavirus cases than have been diagnosed: Coronavirus can be diagnosed only through testing. But a huge number of cases are mild, and thus don’t drive people to hospitals for testing. Furthermore, particularly in the United States, testing has been utterly insufficient. This means that there are probably thousands of cases of undiagnosed coronavirus. But the death toll from coronavirus is likely highly accurate — after all, there are corpses. We calculate death rates by dividing the number of deaths by the number of cases diagnosed. This means that if the denominator is being understated, the death rates are overstated.

According to factcheck.org, “[vaccine expert Paul] Offit likens the situation to the swine flu epidemic of 2009. At one point, he said, the mortality rate was thought to be much higher than the 0.01 to 0.03% it turned out to be. He thinks the mortality rate for coronavirus will similarly plummet and the ‘false notion that it is more likely to kill you than influenza’ will disappear.” And as Gary Kobinger, director of the Infectious Disease Research Center at Laval University in Quebec, stated, “There are mild cases that are undetected. This is why it’s spreading. Otherwise it would not be spreading because we would know where those cases are and they would be contained and that would be the end of it.” The New England Journal of Medicine suggested that “the overall clinical consequences of COVID-19 may ultimately be more akin to those of a severe seasonal influenza.”

The Diamond Princess cruise ship data suggests the death rates are exaggerated: Dr. Jeremy Faust of Harvard Medical School recently wrote in Slate that the impact of coronavirus is being exaggerated because of lack of widespread knowledge about the cohort most affected by coronavirus. Faust explained: “This is where the Diamond Princess data provides important insight. Of the 3,711 people on board, at least 705 have tested positive for the virus (which, considering the confines, conditions, and how contagious this virus appears to be, is surprisingly low). Of those, more than half are asymptomatic, while very few asymptomatic people were detected in China. This alone suggests a halving of the virus’s true fatality rate.”

“The overall clinical consequences of COVID-19 may ultimately be more akin to those of a severe seasonal influenza.”  — New England Journal of Medicine

Those who have died are disproportionately elderly or already infirm: What’s more, deaths from coronavirus are heavily slanted toward those who have pre-existing serious health conditions and/or who are elderly. On the Diamond Princess, as Faust points out, “six deaths have occurred among the passengers, constituting a case fatality rate of 0.85 percent. … Not a single Diamond Princess patient under age 70 has died. If the numbers from reports out of China had held, the expected number of deaths in those under 70 should have been around four.” NBC News recently reported that the Diamond Princess isn’t an exception: “Very few children have been diagnosed with it. And of those who have, most have had mild cases. … Worldwide, there have been no deaths reported so far in young children.” Coronavirus hasn’t affected newborns in China: “Even newborns seem to be tolerating the virus fairly well: One study found that in China, only nine infants were hospitalized with it between Dec. 8 and Feb. 6. None had severe complications or required intensive care.” This is at wide variance with the Spanish flu, which killed predominantly young and healthy people.

So, what does this mean? What everyone already thinks it means: You should take whatever precautions are available, including hand-washing and staying home if you’re sick. But the amount of sheer panic that seems to be roiling the public is overstated based on the available information.

Ben Shapiro is the author of The New York Times bestseller “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear Silences Americans.”

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