Dr Suhail Naik
The human respiratory system is the favourite host of both the flu virus and the coronavirus. COVID-19 is caused by one particular coronavirus, the novel 2019 coronavirus, and the disease is now called severe acute respiratory syndrome Coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2. Flu is caused by any of the several different types and strains of influenza viruses.
Both the viral infections result in almost similar symptoms, such as fever, cough, body aches, fatigue, sometimes vomiting and diarrhea. Symptoms can be mild or severe, even fatal in rare cases. Both viruses can lead to severe pneumonia with respiratory failure or ARDS.
As far as transmission is concerned, both viruses can spread through droplets in the air from an infected person’s coughing, sneezing or talking.
The symptoms of flu can take several days to appear, and COVID-19 is believed to have similar symptoms, but we don’t yet know for sure.
Comparing the epidemiology of the two viruses on available data, it seems that coronavirus is deadlier than the flu. On average, the seasonal flu strain kills (case fatality rate) about 0.1 percent of people who become infected. For the coronavirus death rate, early estimates from Wuhan, China, suggest to be around 2 percent. Thus, the fatality rate of coronavirus is 20 times more than flu viruses.
In a study published on Feb 18 in the China CDC Weekly, researchers found the death rate from COVID-19 to be around 2.9% in mainland China. That’s much higher than the death rate linked to flu, which is typically around 0.1% in the U.S., according to The New York Times.
Even so, the death rate for COVID-19 varied with location and an individual’s age, among other factors. For instance, in Hubei Province, the epicenter of the outbreak, the death rate reached 2.9%; in other provinces of China, this rate was just 0.4%. In addition, older adults have been hit the hardest. The death rate soars to 14.8% among those aged 80 and older; among ages 70 to 79, the COVID-19 death rate in China seems to be about 8%; it is 3.6% for ages 60 to 69, 1.3% for 50 to 59, 0.4% for 40 to 49, and just 0.2% for ages 10 to 39. Nobody under 9 years of age has died of the coronavirus so far.
However, the rate could be low if it is assumed that many cases may not have been detected because they are mild or even symptom-free. The same stands true for flu viruses as large number of cases are asymptomatic, mild, and self abortive, for which patients never seek medical attention or get recorded.
Like influenza, the coronavirus is most dangerous to people over the age of 65, or who have chronic illness like diabetes, asthma, COPD, chronic kidney failure, cancer or a weak immune system.
As far as the total number of people who have been infected by these viruses, it is apparent that the flu has sickened more people than the coronavirus. In the United States, there have been 32 million cases of flu, several hundred thousand hospitalisations, and 18,000 deaths, according to the CDC. By contrast, about 70 people in the United States have been infected with the new coronavirus, and there has been one death reported.
There are currently 29 cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. Still, newly emerged viruses like this one are always of public health concern, according to the CDC. It’s unclear how the situation with this virus in the U.S. will unfold, the agency said. Some people, such as health care workers, are at increased risk of exposure to COVID-19.
The areas where the two ailments diverge significantly are:
1. There is no treatment or antiviral for coronovirus, but several antiviral drugs are being tested. For those infected with any viral illness, doctors recommend rest, symptomatic treatment to reduce pain and fever, and fluids to avoid dehydration. For the flu, doctors can offer antivirals and they tend to work best within a day or two of when symptoms start.
2. There are no coronavirus vaccinations available, but may be available in a year or two. Flu vaccines are widely available and generally 40 percent to 60 percent effective. Researchers at the U.S. National Institutes of Health are in the early stages of developing a vaccine for coronavirus. US officials plan to launch Phase 1 clinical trial of a potential vaccine for COVID-19 within the next three months.
In general, the CDC recommends the following to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses, which include both coronaviruses and flu viruses: Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands; avoid close contact with people who are sick; stay home when you are sick; and clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
—Dr Naik is a consultant pediatrician and President DAK
Dr Suhail Naik