Another Study Points to Lower COVID-19 Death Rate Than Previous Estimates; Trump Predicted as Much

By Patrick Goodenough | April 1, 2020 | 4:18am EDT
A COVID-19 testing station in Pacoima, California. (Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)
A COVID-19 testing station in Pacoima, California. (Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

(CNSNews.com) – Another academic study is estimating a significantly lower COVID-19 death rate than the 3.4 percent approximation cited by the World Health Organization in early March – an estimate which President Trump was roundly criticized for questioning.

This time, experts from the Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at Imperial College London estimated that the probability of dying after being infected with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is about 0.657 percent across all age ranges (although increasing after age 60, and especially so after age 80.)

Unlike some previous studies, this one attempts to take into account milder – and therefore often undiagnosed – infections.

The WHO’s 3.4 percent figure reported in early March was based on simply dividing the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases by the total number of deaths (the “case fatality ratio”).

(Using that simple measure of dividing confirmed cases by deaths, today’s global figures – roughly 860,000 confirmed cases and roughly 42,300 deaths – would deliver a 4.9 percent case fatality ratio.)

But the new study, published in the journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases, sought to estimate the “infection fatality ratio” – or the proportion of all infections, irrespective of severity of symptoms, that ultimately result in death.

The researchers combined confirmed case data from mainland China with information on the rate of infections among foreigners repatriated to their home countries from the outbreak epicenter of Wuhan, all of whom were tested irrespective of symptoms. Also examined were data from the passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise liner, which was quarantined in Japan in early February.

They concluded that an estimated 0.657 percent of people of all ages who are infected, whether they are diagnosed as such or not, will die.

The estimates ranged from extremely low for COVID-19-infected people aged 1-9 (0.00161 percent); to 1.93 percent for infected people in their 60s; and to 7.8 percent for infected people aged 80 and above.

As reported earlier, a recent study by infectious disease experts at the University of Hong Kong and Harvard University, analyzing cases in Wuhan, estimated that the probability of dying after developing COVID-19 symptoms was about 1.4 percent across all age ranges .

By examining only symptomatic infections, that earlier study – published in Nature Medicine – differed from the new one, which estimates for all infections, symptomatic or otherwise.

After WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom on March 3 cited the 3.4 percent mortality rate, Trump voiced skepticism.

“I think the 3.4 percent is really a false number,” he said in a phone interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity. “Now, this is just my hunch, and – but based on a lot of conversations with a lot of people that do this – because a lot of people will have this [infection], and it’s very mild.”

“They don’t know about the easy cases because the easy cases don’t go to the hospital, they don’t report to doctors or the hospital in many cases,” Trump said. “So I think that that number [3.4 percent] is very high. I think the number, personally, I would say the number is way under one percent.”

Critics pounced.

“I hesitate to even print the United States president's words here, because they’re so at odds with what health experts are saying,” wrote Brian Stelter of CNN. “But the president's statements to Sean Hannity are significant because millions of people were watching live.”

“Hannity televised Trump’s irresponsible ‘hunch’ to the world ...” fretted Stelter, who described the WHO case fatality ratio figure as a “data-driven assessment of the global death rate for the novel coronavirus.”

Vox a few days later listed the president’s comment as one of “Trump’s 7 worst statements on the coronavirus outbreak.”

In a daily pandemic update three days after Tedros’ comment, WHO itself noted the difference between the case fatality ratio and the infection mortality rate.

“While the true mortality of COVID-19 will take some time to fully understand, the data we have so far indicate that the crude mortality ratio (the number of reported deaths divided by the reported cases) is between 3-4%,” it said. “[T]he infection mortality rate (the number of reported deaths divided by the number of infections) will be lower.”

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