As thousands of new coronavirus cases are confirmed across the United States, dozens of states and cities have implemented restrictions on non-essential outings and business operations. But with the growing number of cases also comes a great deal of misinformation, including inaccurate comparisons to the flu. According to experts, this coronavirus myth is one the most dangerous out there, and it's important to avoid information that has not been confirmed by public health professionals.
According to Vincent Racaniello, Ph.D, a microbiology and immunology professor at Columbia University's Irving Medical Center, one of the biggest pieces of misinformation he's seen about coronavirus is the idea that "it's not a big deal," or that it's just like the flu or common cold.
"We’ve gotten that from leaders of this country up until recently, and so people are just walking around not avoiding contact, not washing their hands — and this is going to just transmit the virus even more," Racaniello tells Elite Daily. "People have to realize it is serious because even if you’re young, the problem is you’re going to transmit it to some older person in which the infection is going to be more serious." It isn't just visibly sick people spreading the coronavirus, either. Asymptomatic people — that is, people who don't show any symptoms — have likely been spreading the disease, too, without even knowing that they have been infected.
Karen Levy, Ph.D, an epidemiologist and associate professor of environmental health at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health, echoes Racaniello's argument, telling Elite Daily that comparing the coronavirus to the flu is "one of the most dangerous pieces of misinformation that we’ve seen repeated." Part of the danger with this comparison, Levy says, is that far more people are susceptible to the coronavirus because they have not yet built up immunity like they may have done with certain flu strains. Plus, there isn't a coronavirus vaccine yet. Although clinical trials for a potential vaccine began in mid-March, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease and a leading figure in the national response to the pandemic, said that a preventive vaccine likely wouldn't be safe and available until at least March 2020.
"It’s simple math," Levy says. "The total number of people susceptible in the population is huge, close to 100% of the population, so even if the death rate is the same, the total number of cases and deaths will be much higher than with flu."
The flu already causes high rates of illness and death, but according to Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, the coronavirus is deadlier than the flu. Although "there are many similarities, it is important to remember that right now it appears that this is at least 10 times more deadly than influenza," he tells Elite Daily. What's more, these coronavirus cases aren't replacing deadly flu cases, but are adding to the burden on communities and health care providers, who now must treat people suffering from both illnesses.
Indeed, during a March 11 congressional testimony, Fauci told lawmakers the coronavirus killed approximately 1% of all those infected, making it 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu. The death rate from the coronavirus has dramatically fluctuated across different countries as more people are tested for the virus, but as of March 24, Business Insider placed the U.S. death rate at 1.2%, while the death rate in Italy was much higher at 9.5%. According to NPR, the reproduction rate for coronavirus — that is, the rate at which it is transmitted from person to person — is also higher than that of the flu, and coronavirus causes a higher rate of hospitalizations as well.
While experts across the board have made it clear that comparing the coronavirus to the flu is dangerous and inaccurate, there are other myths out there that they want to clarify. Dr. Adolfo García-Sastre, a microbiology professor and director of the Global Health and Emerging Pathogens Institute at Mount Sinai's Icahn School of Medicine, tells Elite Daily via email, "there have been many conspiracy theories about this being a man-made virus." Dr. Peter Palese, a Horace W. Goldsmith Professor and chair of the microbiology department at Mount Sinai's Icahn School of Medicine, shares his colleague's concern, noting there have been false reports out of China "saying the SARS-CoV-2 [coronavirus] was introduced by U.S. military."
"This is simply not true," García-Sastre says. "This is mother nature." Palese agrees, telling Elite Daily via email, "The evidence that this is a zoonotic (coming from animals to humans) virus is overwhelming."
Beyond the conspiracy theories and myths, Racaniello warns people to take the coronavirus seriously. According to Mother Jones, social media users opposing mandatory vaccinations have spread rumors in recent weeks that the coronavirus really isn't that serious, or that social distancing is a draconian tactic by the federal government. In reality, shelter-in-place orders and CDC-recommended social distancing measures have been implemented to "flatten the curve" and avoid overwhelming the American health care system. The CDC that recommends that everyone wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, stay at least six feet away from other people, regularly disinfect high-touch surfaces, and stay at home if you're sick.
If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all Elite Daily's coverage of coronavirus here.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security
Dr. Peter Palese, Horace W. Goldsmith Professor and chair of the Microbiology Department at Mount Sinai's Icahn School of Medicine
Dr. Adolfo García-Sastre, microbiology professor and director of the Global Health and Emerging Pathogens Institute at Mount Sinai's Icahn School of Medicine
Vincent Racaniello, Ph.D, Higgins Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center
Karen Levy, Ph.D, MPH, associate professor of environmental health at Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health