Harvard Study Finds COVID-19 Fatality Rate Far Lower Than World Health Org Suggests


A glimmer of hope in the midst of a pandemic that has ground the world to a halt: A new study from Harvard University and University of Hong Kong finds that COVID-19 might have a lower fatality rate than originally suggested.

According to the study published in Nature Medicine last week, only 1.4 percent of people who contracted the novel coronavirus in the epicenter of the disease, Wuhan, died from it.

CNS News reported that the paper was still awaiting peer review.

However, the fatality rate presented by the study was dramatically lower than the World Health Organization’s prediction of a 3.4 percent death rate earlier this month, as well as early predictors of death in Wuhan.

“As of 29 February 2020 there were 79,394 confirmed cases and 2,838 deaths from COVID-19 in mainland China. Of these, 48,557 cases and 2,169 deaths occurred in the epicenter, Wuhan,” the paper’s abstract read.

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“A key public health priority during the emergence of a novel pathogen is estimating clinical severity, which requires properly adjusting for the case ascertainment rate and the delay between symptoms onset and death.

“Using public and published information, we estimate that the overall symptomatic case fatality risk (the probability of dying after developing symptoms) of COVID-19 in Wuhan was 1.4% (0.9–2.1%), which is substantially lower than both the corresponding crude or naïve confirmed case fatality risk (2,169/48,557 = 4.5%) and the approximator of deaths/deaths + recoveries (2,169/2,169 + 17,572 = 11%) as of 29 February 2020.”

This is a significant improvement over the numbers predicted by the World Health Organization’s director-general in remarks on March 3.

“While many people globally have built up immunity to seasonal flu strains, COVID-19 is a new virus to which no one has immunity. That means more people are susceptible to infection, and some will suffer severe disease,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

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“Globally, about 3.4 percent of reported COVID-19 cases have died. By comparison, seasonal flu generally kills far fewer than 1 percent of those infected.”

Instead, the researchers from the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that the symptomatic case fatality risk — or sCFR, “the probability of dying after developing symptoms” from the coronavirus — was significantly lower than that.

There weren’t many surprises aside from that, at least if you’ve followed coronavirus science so far.

Older patients, defined in the paper, had an estimated 2.7 percent risk of dying from COVID-19. For those who were between the ages of 15 and 64, estimated risk of death was only 0.5 percent.

For those ages 15-44, low and high estimates were 0.1 percent and 1.3 percent, respectively; those ages 45-64 had estimates of between 0.2 percent and 1.1 percent.

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The researchers, led by Joseph T. Wu of the University of Hong Kong, noted that since they had “parameterized the model using death rates inferred from projected case numbers (from traveler data) and observed death numbers in Wuhan, the precise fatality risk estimates may not be generalizable to those outside the original epicenter, especially during subsequent phases of the epidemic.

“The experience gained from managing those initial patients and the increasing availability of newer, and potentially better, treatment modalities to more patients would presumably lead to fewer deaths, all else being equal,” the study read.

“Public health control measures widely imposed in China since the Wuhan alert have also kept case numbers down elsewhere, so that their health systems are not nearly as overwhelmed beyond surge capacity, thus again perhaps leading to better outcomes.”

These are all good numbers which provide a glimmer of hope. On the other hand, there’s still a huge gap between death rates in different countries.

For instance, Italy is reporting a death rate of over 9 percent based on a crude confirmed case fatality risk while countries like the United States and Germany are at around 1 percent or lower as of Tuesday morning, according to the numbers from Johns Hopkins University.

Much of this is cultural and some of it has to do with inconsistencies in how deaths are being reported and who’s being tested.

That said, we look for glimmers of hope where we can get them, and this study is certainly one of them.

If the study’s numbers are accurate, it means the death rate for people over the age of 65 in Wuhan was lower than the WHO’s total predicted death rate — 2.7 percent vs. 3.4 percent.

It also means the death rate in total is 2 percentage points lower in Wuhan than what is being predicted for the world.

This isn’t a sign that the coronavirus is less of a problem.

Infection rates are still high and with the variance in death rates around the world, we don’t know where this leads. This is just one city, after all.

Keep indoors.

Keep washing your hands.

Keep a safe distance from people.

However, hope and pray that things aren’t as scary as they seem.

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C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014.
C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014. Aside from politics, he enjoys spending time with his wife, literature (especially British comic novels and modern Japanese lit), indie rock, coffee, Formula One and football (of both American and world varieties).
Morristown, New Jersey
Catholic University of America
Languages Spoken
English, Spanish
Topics of Expertise
American Politics, World Politics, Culture