Pandemics come and pandemics go.
In the grip of a new infection spreading around a planet with no natural immunity, it can feel like the sky is falling. Over the coming months, it’s likely that a significant share of the world’s population will experience some of the dread of the Covid-19 coronavirus that people in China have suffered over the past few months. Many will die.
Still, the likely end-point of this outbreak will see it settle down as an endemic disease — one of the suite of respiratory viruses like influenza and the common cold that travel around the world year after year, with most of us regarding them as little more than a nuisance.
The great unknown is what will happen along the way. Doing the sums can produce alarming figures. The best estimates so far suggest that Covid-19 kills about 1% of people it infects. That number may go up somewhat or fall significantly; either way it could add up to a dreadful toll.
If 60% of the world’s population is ultimately infected, as suggested by Gabriel Leung, chair of public health medicine at Hong Kong University, a 1% fatality rate would kill almost 50 million people — similar to the 1918 Spanish flu. If that falls to 0.1%, it could still be roughly 10 times more fatal than the 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak, which killed several hundred thousand in its first year.
A better comparison might be the influenza pandemics that emerged from China in the 1950s and 1960s, according to Benjamin Cowie, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Melbourne — but the differences are still significant. While our health systems are far better than they were 50 years ago, the channels of infection are more open, too.
“We’re in a very different world now, our world is much more interconnected,” he said. “What happens in one place is much more likely to be on the other side of the world in 24 hours.”
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SOURCE: Bloomberg, David Fickling