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Is COVID-19 really any worse than normal seasonal flu?

Answer: You don't want to get either.

Image source: twinsfisch/unsplash
  • Many are suggesting coronavirus is just flu-season business as usual. It's not.
  • No sensible comparison can be made anyway, for a few reasons.
  • The one that's less bad — whichever that is — can still kill you.

A lot of people are trying to get a sense of whether COVID-19 is any more dangerous than normal seasonal flu strains. Unfortunately, making meaningful comparisons between them is just not possible yet. From a "what should I do/worry about?" point of view, though, it's pretty pointless to compare the two.

Whichever one you select as the ultimate Big Bad, they're both out there: You have a decent chance of contracting either illness, and they both can be fatal for certain demographic segments. Trying to choose which one is worse is like trying to choose whether you'd rather be hit by a bus or a truck.

At this point, the best advice remains the same for both: Start washing those hands well and frequently, and follow the CDC's recommendations for avoiding infection.

John Oliver's Last Week Tonight on HBO surfaced a mnemonic earworm from the Vietnamese Health Authority. Fittingly enough, it's contagious and currently infecting TikTok.

Here’s why we can’t know which is worse

There are some fundamental differences between the statistics available on seasonal flu and COVID-19, and they make a direct comparison impossible.

  • Seasonal flu is an annual phenomenon (even though strains change). There's lots of multi-year data on rates of infection and mortality in the hands of numerous national health authorities. COVID-19, on the other hand, has been around for only about two months, and most of the available data comes from just one country, China, where it first emerged.
  • Related to this is that it's impossible to calculate the spread of COVID-19 from such a limited amount of data, both in terms of time and geography. The disease is now apparently racing around the globe outside China, but how fast will it circulate and what will be its final infection rate? It's impossible to know.
  • There are remedies and vaccines for seasonal flu strains — neither exist for COVID-19. While existing therapies are being tested for their efficacy against coronavirus, no silver bullet has yet been found and there's no way to know when/if one will. Hilary Marston, a medical officer and policy advisor at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases says of a coronavirus vaccine, "If everything moves as quickly as possible, the soonest that it could possibly be is about one-and-a-half to two years. That still might be very optimistic." This makes a comparison of the death rates between seasonal flu and COVID-19 unfair.

Image source: Brynjar Gunnarsson/Shutterstock

Things people are saying, and what's real

You're more likely to get the seasonal flu.

Um, maybe, at the moment. Be aware that COVID-19 is being found in new areas pretty much every day. Harvard epidemiologist Mark Lipstich says, "I think the likely outcome is that it will ultimately not be containable."

On top of that, we don't know how fast it will spread in the wild. If it continues to travel at the rate it has in the last two months, hoo boy. However, contagion doesn't usually remain linear. So it could get better. Or worse. Will seasons affect it? Proper sanitation? Other factors? With only two months of data, we can't possibly know, but Lipstich predicts 40% to 70% of us will get it.

COVID-19 is 20 times more deadly than seasonal flu.

Sorry. It's likely a lot worse than that. Last week, COVID-19's mortality rate was thought to be 2.3%. Now it's considered to be 3.4%, or .034 of the total number of infections. The CDC estimates the seasonal flu mortality rate this year is .001% — the number of deaths divided by the number of total infections. So, as of March 4, the latest figure for COVID-19's mortality rate is 34 times greater than seasonal flu, nearly double what you've been hearing.

Of course, the lack of effective treatment is a key factor in COVID-19's mortality rate. When/if one is identified, that rate will go down.

Most people get through COVID-19 just fine.

This is true, However, while in one sense it's great that the vast majority of people who contract COVID-19 get over it easily, it also means that a lot of people have the coronavirus without realizing it and are continuing to spread the infection. In stark — and tragic — contrast, one of the reasons Ebola eventually stopped infecting people was that most of its victims typically died before they could spread the disease. COVID-19, on the other hand, can travel quite invisibly far and wide before being recognized.

Epidemiologist Jennifer Nuzzo tells The Washington Post that the recent U.S. diagnoses confirm "what we have long suspected — that there is a good chance there already are people infected in this country and that the virus is circulating undetected. It points to the need for expanded surveillance so we know how many more are out there and how to respond. It's also likely that person-to-person spread will continue to occur, including in the United States."

BONUS: You should stop drinking Corona beer to avoid/protest COVID-19.

Seriously, no.

Image source: DenisMArt/Shutterstock

So stop comparing and just be safe

Regardless of which disease is worse, they're both potentially dangerous, so be safe and follow safety guidelines. Take hand-washing seriously: Rub your hands together with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. (Sing the alphabet at a moderate speed and you'll be about right.)

As for the question "How worried should I be about Coronavirus?" We'll let Oliver have the last word: "A bit."

Editor's note: A previous version of this article stated a cure exists for the flu. There is no cure for the flu.

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