Heading into March, at least 3,200 people have died from coronavirus globally. And while keeping track of this news might feel like the type of thing you don’t want to think about at all, let alone study or track, know that these numbers only tell part of the story. The overall mortality rate for coronavirus is hard to pinpoint right now.
Early estimates for the coronavirus placed the death rate at around 2%, then 1.4% a few weeks later, The New York Times reports. This means that for every 100 people who contract the virus, an estimated one to two would die. But on March 3, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a new estimated death rate during its daily media briefing on the virus. “Globally, about 3.4% of reported #COVID19 cases have died,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director of WHO, said. “By comparison, seasonal flu generally kills far fewer than 1% of those infected.”
Still, the estimated coronavirus death rate in China has steadily dropped, NPR reports, from the earliest estimates of 15% to a mid-February estimate of .8%. The conflicting statistics could have to do with the difficulty of determining just how many people are infected in the first place. Think about it this way: it’s possible that people with mild symptoms were never officially diagnosed with coronavirus. Assuming the majority of those people recovered, this could suggest the death rate is actually lower than originally reported. As more people become aware of the virus and get tested, researchers can make more accurate estimates about the mortality rate.
This is partially why the death rate is subject to change in the future, the same way it’s changed so much over the last few weeks. Additionally, there’s still limited data coming out of countries with the highest coronavirus outbreaks, Dr. Allon Mordel, M.D., Medical Director at K Health and Attending Physician in the Emergency Departments of NYU Langone Hospital & Bellevue Hospital Center, tells Bustle. “We don’t know what the true denominator is,” he says. “We may have tested only the more apparent and severe cases, which could lead to inflated mortality rates.”
As hospitals continue to identify the virus at earlier stages than they did in the beginning, Dr. Mordel explains, the death rate could continue to go down. He adds, “We suspect that the lower mortality rates in Italy/Korea may be related to early identification and intervention.”
Jamie Metzl, a WHO expert on genome editing, echoes that the numbers will fluctuate over the next several weeks. “As our testing capacity improves, I am guessing we will find that this coronavirus has spread significantly more widely than currently understood,” he says to Bustle. “The upside, if there is one, is that this will bring down the death rate.”
When you’re trying to understand how an estimated death rate works in practice, remember that all people aren’t all equally likely to die from a given sickness. For example, since coronavirus is a respiratory infection, people with weak lungs or other relevant health issues have a higher likelihood of becoming extremely sick or dying than those who have healthy lungs, BBC reports.
Similarly, per The New York Times, the coronavirus has particularly hurt one age demographic more than others in China: middle-aged or older men. In early March, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention released figures on the virus, which found that although it had pretty equally infected men and women, the death rate among men was 2.8%, while the death rate in women was 1.7%. There could be many reasons for this difference, scientists say, including genetic differences between men and women, as well as the fact that men in China smoke at far higher rates than women in China (The New York Times reports that half of men in China smoke regularly, while only 2% of women in China do.)
The point is that generalized death rates for a disease or virus are not a one-size-fits-all statistic. While they help people understand the severity of a illness or pandemic, they can’t guarantee or predict how a population, or a specific demographic of person, will necessarily fare.
In the meantime, Metzel suggests people stay calm as health organizations gain more information and resources in the coming weeks. “We have a long way to go to understand the magnitude of what we are facing,” he says. “That the initial indications are so alarming does not mean that our worst fears will necessarily be realized.”
Jamie Metzl, WHO Expert on Human Genome Editing, Author of Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity