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Is COVID-19 really any worse than normal seasonal flu?
Answer: You don't want to get either.
- 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.
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.
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.
So much for rest in peace.
- Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead.
- Researchers used photography capture technology in 30-minute intervals every day to capture the movement.
- This study could help better identify time of death.
We're learning more new things about death everyday. Much has been said and theorized about the great divide between life and the Great Beyond. While everyone and every culture has their own philosophies and unique ideas on the subject, we're beginning to learn a lot of new scientific facts about the deceased corporeal form.
An Australian scientist has found that human bodies move for more than a year after being pronounced dead. These findings could have implications for fields as diverse as pathology to criminology.
Dead bodies keep moving
Researcher Alyson Wilson studied and photographed the movements of corpses over a 17 month timeframe. She recently told Agence France Presse about the shocking details of her discovery.
Reportedly, she and her team focused a camera for 17 months at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), taking images of a corpse every 30 minutes during the day. For the entire 17 month duration, the corpse continually moved.
"What we found was that the arms were significantly moving, so that arms that started off down beside the body ended up out to the side of the body," Wilson said.
The researchers mostly expected some kind of movement during the very early stages of decomposition, but Wilson further explained that their continual movement completely surprised the team:
"We think the movements relate to the process of decomposition, as the body mummifies and the ligaments dry out."
During one of the studies, arms that had been next to the body eventually ended up akimbo on their side.
The team's subject was one of the bodies stored at the "body farm," which sits on the outskirts of Sydney. (Wilson took a flight every month to check in on the cadaver.)Her findings were recently published in the journal, Forensic Science International: Synergy.
Implications of the study
The researchers believe that understanding these after death movements and decomposition rate could help better estimate the time of death. Police for example could benefit from this as they'd be able to give a timeframe to missing persons and link that up with an unidentified corpse. According to the team:
"Understanding decomposition rates for a human donor in the Australian environment is important for police, forensic anthropologists, and pathologists for the estimation of PMI to assist with the identification of unknown victims, as well as the investigation of criminal activity."
While scientists haven't found any evidence of necromancy. . . the discovery remains a curious new understanding about what happens with the body after we die.
Metal-like materials have been discovered in a very strange place.
- Bristle worms are odd-looking, spiky, segmented worms with super-strong jaws.
- Researchers have discovered that the jaws contain metal.
- It appears that biological processes could one day be used to manufacture metals.
The bristle worm, also known as polychaetes, has been around for an estimated 500 million years. Scientists believe that the super-resilient species has survived five mass extinctions, and there are some 10,000 species of them.
Be glad if you haven't encountered a bristle worm. Getting stung by one is an extremely itchy affair, as people who own saltwater aquariums can tell you after they've accidentally touched a bristle worm that hitchhiked into a tank aboard a live rock.
Bristle worms are typically one to six inches long when found in a tank, but capable of growing up to 24 inches long. All polychaetes have a segmented body, with each segment possessing a pair of legs, or parapodia, with tiny bristles. ("Polychaeate" is Greek for "much hair.") The parapodia and its bristles can shoot outward to snag prey, which is then transferred to a bristle worm's eversible mouth.
The jaws of one bristle worm — Platynereis dumerilii — are super-tough, virtually unbreakable. It turns out, according to a new study from researchers at the Technical University of Vienna, this strength is due to metal atoms.
Metals, not minerals
Fireworm, a type of bristle wormCredit: prilfish / Flickr
This is pretty unusual. The study's senior author Christian Hellmich explains: "The materials that vertebrates are made of are well researched. Bones, for example, are very hierarchically structured: There are organic and mineral parts, tiny structures are combined to form larger structures, which in turn form even larger structures."
The bristle worm jaw, by contrast, replaces the minerals from which other creatures' bones are built with atoms of magnesium and zinc arranged in a super-strong structure. It's this structure that is key. "On its own," he says, "the fact that there are metal atoms in the bristle worm jaw does not explain its excellent material properties."
Just deformable enough
Credit: by-studio / Adobe Stock
What makes conventional metal so strong is not just its atoms but the interactions between the atoms and the ways in which they slide against each other. The sliding allows for a small amount of elastoplastic deformation when pressure is applied, endowing metals with just enough malleability not to break, crack, or shatter.
Co-author Florian Raible of Max Perutz Labs surmises, "The construction principle that has made bristle worm jaws so successful apparently originated about 500 million years ago."
Raible explains, "The metal ions are incorporated directly into the protein chains and then ensure that different protein chains are held together." This leads to the creation of three-dimensional shapes the bristle worm can pack together into a structure that's just malleable enough to withstand a significant amount of force.
"It is precisely this combination," says the study's lead author Luis Zelaya-Lainez, "of high strength and deformability that is normally characteristic of metals.
So the bristle worm jaw is both metal-like and yet not. As Zelaya-Lainez puts it, "Here we are dealing with a completely different material, but interestingly, the metal atoms still provide strength and deformability there, just like in a piece of metal."
Observing the creation of a metal-like material from biological processes is a bit of a surprise and may suggest new approaches to materials development. "Biology could serve as inspiration here," says Hellmich, "for completely new kinds of materials. Perhaps it is even possible to produce high-performance materials in a biological way — much more efficiently and environmentally friendly than we manage today."
Dealing with rudeness can nudge you toward cognitive errors.
- Anchoring is a common bias that makes people fixate on one piece of data.
- A study showed that those who experienced rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to bad data.
- In some simulations with medical students, this effect led to higher mortality rates.
Cognitive biases are funny little things. Everyone has them, nobody likes to admit it, and they can range from minor to severe depending on the situation. Biases can be influenced by factors as subtle as our mood or various personality traits.
A new study soon to be published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggests that experiencing rudeness can be added to the list. More disturbingly, the study's findings suggest that it is a strong enough effect to impact how medical professionals diagnose patients.
Life hack: don't be rude to your doctor
The team of researchers behind the project tested to see if participants could be influenced by the common anchoring bias, defined by the researchers as "the tendency to rely too heavily or fixate on one piece of information when making judgments and decisions." Most people have experienced it. One of its more common forms involves being given a particular value, say in negotiations on price, which then becomes the center of reasoning even when reason would suggest that number should be ignored.
It can also pop up in medicine. As co-author Dr. Trevor Foulk explains, "If you go into the doctor and say 'I think I'm having a heart attack,' that can become an anchor and the doctor may get fixated on that diagnosis, even if you're just having indigestion. If doctors don't move off anchors enough, they'll start treating the wrong thing."
Lots of things can make somebody more or less likely to anchor themselves to an idea. The authors of the study, who have several papers on the effects of rudeness, decided to see if that could also cause people to stumble into cognitive errors. Past research suggested that exposure to rudeness can limit people's perspective — perhaps anchoring them.
In the first version of the study, medical students were given a hypothetical patient to treat and access to information on their condition alongside an (incorrect) suggestion on what the condition was. This served as the anchor. In some versions of the tests, the students overheard two doctors arguing rudely before diagnosing the patient. Later variations switched the diagnosis test for business negotiations or workplace tasks while maintaining the exposure to rudeness.
Across all iterations of the test, those exposed to rudeness were more likely to anchor themselves to the initial, incorrect suggestion despite the availability of evidence against it. This was less significant for study participants who scored higher on a test of how wide of a perspective they tended to have. The disposition of these participants, who answered in the affirmative to questions like, "Before criticizing somebody, I try to imagine how I would feel if I were in his/her place," was able to effectively negate the narrowing effects of rudeness.
What this means for you and your healthcare
The effects of anchoring when a medical diagnosis is on the line can be substantial. Dr. Foulk explains that, in some simulations, exposure to rudeness can raise the mortality rate as doctors fixate on the wrong problems.
The authors of the study suggest that managers take a keener interest in ensuring civility in workplaces and giving employees the tools they need to avoid judgment errors after dealing with rudeness. These steps could help prevent anchoring.
Also, you might consider being nicer to people.