Members of the American Red Cross remove flu victims in 1918.
St Louis Post-Dispatch | Tribune news service through Getty Images
The coronavirus is at least as deadly as the 1918 flu pandemic, and the death toll could be even worse if world leaders and public health officials fail to contain it properly, researchers warned in a study published Thursday in the journal medical JAMA Network Open.
“What we want people to know is that this has the potential of 1918,” said lead author Dr. Jeremy Faust in an interview, adding that the New York blast was at least 70% as bad as it was in 1918 when doctors had no fans or other advances to help save lives as they do today. “This is not something to pile up like the flu.”
Researchers compared excessive deaths in New York City during the peak of the 1918 pandemic to those during the first months of the Covid-19 outbreak. They used public data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, and the U.S. Census Bureau to conduct their analyzes.
The increase in deaths during the 1918 flu pandemic was generally higher, but comparable to that observed in the first two months of the coronavirus outbreak in New York City, the researchers found. But when improvements in hygiene, modern medicine and public health are taken into account, the increase during the early coronavirus outbreak was “substantially greater” than during the peak of the 1918 pandemic, the researchers write.
“If inadequately treated, SARS-CoV-2 infection can have comparable or greater mortality than 1918 H1N1 flu virus infection,” Faust wrote in the letter. He is a physician at Brigham and Women Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School.
The study authors noted that their research had limitations. The researchers said it is unknown how many deaths from Covid-19 have been prevented since the outbreak began due to modern improvements in healthcare that were not available a century ago, such as extra oxygen and fans.
The new study comes as the coronavirus continues to spread rapidly in the United States and around the world. The virus has infected more than 20 million people worldwide and killed at least 749,700, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. The US has the worst outbreak in the world with more than 5 million infections and at least 166,000 deaths, Hopkins data show.
The U.S. recorded more than 1,500 deaths caused by Covid-19 on Wednesday, marking the deadliest day for the country since late May.
A separate study published July 1 in JAMA Medicine Medicine in July found that the number of confirmed deaths from the U.S. due to coronavirus is substantially lower than true.
Those researchers found that the excessive number of deaths above normal levels also exceeded those attributed to Covid-19, leading them to conclude that many of these deaths were likely caused by the coronavirus, but not confirmed. State reporting discrepancies and a sharp rise in U.S. deaths amid a pandemic suggest the death toll of Covid-19 victims is estimated, they said.
The World Health Organization says there is no “silver bullet” for the virus and healthcare workers are likely to need a set of treatments to help patients fight the disease. Currently, many hospitals in the US are using remdesvir of antiviral drugs, which has been shown to help shorten the recovery time of some hospitalized patients. There are also many vaccines in development with at least 26 already in human trials, according to the WHO.
Public health officials and infectious disease experts have often compared Covid-19 to the 1918 flu, which is estimated to have killed 50 million people worldwide from 1918 to 1919, including 675,000 Americans, according to the CDC. By comparison, more than 20 million people died in World War I.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, has said the coronavirus is a “pandemic of historical proportions” and history books are likely to compare it to 1918. He cited the “extreme” range of symptoms people can experience. after contracting the virus, including pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome. PMIS is a rare inflammatory condition found in children with Covid-19 that is similar to Kawasaki syndrome and has caused neurological damage in some children.
“We learn things every week,” he said on July 13th.
The researchers of the new study said their findings could help officials contextualize the unusual size of the Covid-19 pandemic and “lead to more prudent policies that could help reduce transmission.”