The claim: Experts exaggerate the gravity of COVID-19 death rates in comparison with the Spanish flu and seasonal flu
Many claims have attempted to compare the COVID-19 pandemic with prior pandemics, such as the Spanish flu in 1918 or the swine flu in 2009. Others have tried to brush off the novel coronavirus symptoms and rate of infection as akin to the seasonal flu.
USA TODAY debunked the claim that there were 56 million fewer cases of COVID-19 than of the H1N1 virus, or swine flu, during the first year of that pandemic.
A widely shared meme features a slightly altered version of the claim. One Facebook post of the meme from late July has been shared more than 50,000 times. USA TODAY reached out to the poster for comment, and he replied with more statistics that could not be independently verified.
Digging into the numbers
In the meme, health experts are accused of overreacting about COVID-19 in comparison with the H1N1 pandemic of 1918 (the Spanish flu) and the seasonal flu. The meme starts with the line “How big is 1%?” It then offers statistics for each pandemic and the seasonal flu, including world population, number of infected people and fatality rate compared with the world population.
The meme says 50 million people, 5.26% of an estimated global population of 950 million, died of the Spanish flu, then says, “Experts: TRAGIC EVENT!”
Though it is true that about 50 million people died from the Spanish flu, according to an estimate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Global Change Data Lab places the estimated world population in 1918 at 1.8 billion. An article in 2006 in the health journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, published by the CDC, cites a 2.5% global mortality rate. The pandemic lasted for two years, from spring 1918 into spring 1920.
In 2018, 650,000 of an estimated 7.5 billion people, or 0.009%, died of the seasonal flu worldwide. Experts called this a “typical year,” according to the meme.
This part of the meme is accurate. Every year, 3 million to 5 million people globally contract the seasonal flu, resulting in about 290,000 to 650,000 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. The WHO estimates the annual worldwide mortality rate is less than 0.1%, independent U.K. fact-checker Full Fact reported.
The meme says at least 488,729 of an estimated 7.7 billion people have died of COVID-19. There is no date associated with the meme, but the worldwide death count reached more than a half-million June 28, USA TODAY reported.
“1% of the World’s Pop right now would be 77 million dead. Now if 5.26% is TRAGIC and .009 is NO BIG DEAL, what the HELL are we doing!” the meme ends.
Global deaths from COVID-19 passed 776,000 in mid-August, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.
Is COVID-19 more deadly than Spanish flu or seasonal flu?
A report published Aug. 13 in the medical journal JAMA Network Open compared the two months after the first recorded death from COVID-19 in New York City with the deadliest two months of the Spanish flu pandemic.
Researchers found that although there were more deaths per 100,000 people during the peak of the Spanish flu, the toll was still comparable to deaths during the COVID-19 outbreak.
The difference lies in baseline mortality rates. People died of causes not associated with H1N1 in 1918, because of poorer hygiene, public health and safety. Therefore, researchers found the relative increase during the early period of the COVID-19 epidemic was “substantially greater” than the peak of the Spanish flu pandemic.
“This time around – with more advanced medical care and public health systems bringing fatalities down to 50 a month per 100,000 during the same March-to-May dates the previous three years – the number of deaths quadrupled,” USA TODAY reported Aug. 13.
Experts determined COVID-19 to be more deadly than the seasonal flu. There is a vaccine for the seasonal flu, keeping cases down; there is not a vaccine for COVID-19.
The COVID-19 ratio of deaths per 100 cases in the USA was 3.1% as of Thursday, and the approximate 0.05% mortality rate is one of the highest in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University. Only Peru, Spain, Chile and Brazil are higher.
The CDC reported that the annual mortality rate for the seasonal flu is about 0.01%, or 12,000-61,000 deaths per year.
According to the latest data available from the CDC, COVID-19 has an overall infection mortality ratio of 0.0065. That ratio is defined as the proportion of death among all infected individuals. The percentage of transmission from asymptomatic carriers is 50%. The worldwide case fatality rate – the ratio between confirmed deaths and confirmed cases – reached 3.5% Thursday, according to the Global Change Data Lab.
For further comparison, 151,700-575,400 people worldwide died from H1N1 infection during the pandemic in 2009, according to the CDC. Americans accounted for 12,469. More than 174,000 have died from COVID-19 in the USA, according to the Coronavirus Resource Center. A vaccine for the swine flu became available about five months after the first confirmed U.S. case, USA TODAY reported.
However, the Global Change Data Lab stated a thorough COVID-19 mortality analysis should include the likelihood of death for an infected person, or the infection fatality rate. The total number of cases and deaths are needed to accurately calculate this rate. A number of factors, including undertesting, make it difficult for researchers to determine the total case number.
USA TODAY found the comparison presented in the meme simply with numbers is not a fair one. The novel coronavirus spreads more quickly and is more contagious than the seasonal flu.
Our rating: Partly false
We rate this claim as PARTLY FALSE, based on our research. The initial claim presented mostly accurate statistics for the flu epidemic in 1918 and seasonal flu mortality rates. But COVID-19 has been deadlier than either of these diseases, according to experts and studies. Though the number of people dead from COVID-19 as a percentage of world population at one point in time may be an accurate number, it is not reflective of the mortality rate of the virus. The mortality rate is approximately 0.05% in the USA alone This is among the highest in the world and greater than the annual seasonal flu mortality rate, according to the latest data.
Our fact-check sources:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “2009 H1N1 Pandemic (H1N1pdm09 virus)”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Disease Burden of Influenza”
- World Health Organization, Nov. 6, 2018: “Ask the expert: Influenza Q&A”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “1918 Pandemic (H1N1 virus)”
- USA TODAY, Aug. 13, 2020: “Is COVID-19 worse than the 1918 Spanish flu? Study shows deaths in New York quadrupled in early months”
- Johns Hopkins University, accessed Aug. 20, 2020: “Mortality Analyses”
- Johns Hopkins University, accessed Aug. 20, 2020: “Coronavirus Resource Center Map”
- Our World in Data, March 4, 2020: “The Spanish flu (1918-20): The global impact of the largest influenza pandemic in history”
- USA TODAY, June 30, 2020: “Fact check: There is no universal pandemic trajectory; COVID-19 may not have worse 2nd wave”
- USA TODAY, April 25, 2020: “Fact check: Was second wave of Spanish flu worse? Did it kill at least 20 million people?”
- Emerging Infectious Diseases, Jan. 12, 2006: “1918 Influenza: the Mother of All Pandemics”
- Full Fact, March 11, 2020: “How does the new coronavirus compare to influenza?”
- Global Change Data Lab, //accessed Aug. 20, 2020: “Coronavirus Pandemic Data Explorer”
- Our World in Data, accessed Aug. 21, 2020: “Mortality Risk of COVID-19″
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