Wuhan study offers new insight into fatality rate of coronavirus

About 1.4 percent of people infected with the virus in Wuhan, China, where the outbreak originated, died, a new study indicates.
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A medical worker embraces a member of a medical assistance team from Jiangsu province at a ceremony marking their departure after helping with the coronavirus recovery effort, in Wuhan, China, on March 19, 2020.AFP - Getty Images

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By Elizabeth Chuck

About 1.4 percent of people in Wuhan, China, who became ill with the coronavirus died, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Nature.

The finding is consistent with a study from last month which also found the case fatality rate — or the number of deaths divided by the number of diagnosed cases — to be 1.4 percent, based on statistics across China.

The new paper focuses specifically on the city of Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have originated.

The death rate is much higher than that of the influenza, which infects millions of people each year but only kills about 0.1 percent of those who get it.

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And while it is lower than an estimate from the World Health Organization earlier this month that said the case fatality rate from the coronavirus could be as high as 3.4 percent globally, experts still said the figure was alarming.

"We know this is a highly transmissible coronavirus, and all data point toward it being more transmissible than the flu. We also know that it is novel, implying that there is no natural immunity in the human population to this particular coronavirus," said Dr. Sudeb Dalai, an infectious disease physician at Stanford University School of Medicine and the medical director at Karius, an infectious disease diagnostic company. "We would have hoped that the case fatality rate would have been lower than this."

As of Feb. 29, there were 48,557 cases of the coronavirus and 2,169 deaths in Wuhan, according to the study. The authors found that those 60 years and older had 5.1 times the risk of dying from COVID-19, the illness the virus causes, compared to those between 30 and 59 years old.

Researchers are still trying to figure out who exactly is most at risk for severe or fatal complications from the coronavirus, although age has consistently appeared to be a factor.

Children, for the most part, have fared much better than adults, with the vast majority experiencing mild or moderate symptoms. Older people and those with underlying health conditions are believed to be the most vulnerable.

But the conclusions on age are far from complete: In France, more than half of the country's 300 patients in intensive care units are under 60, according to The Associated Press.

Tener Goodwin Veenema, a professor of nursing and public health at Johns Hopkins University, said the new paper underscores how crucial it is to enforce social distancing and other measures to contain the spread of the disease.

"Our great concern right now is not only reducing transmission of disease and protecting the American public, but a full-court press to ensure the safety and well-being of first-line health care responders," she said.

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She cautioned that it will be difficult to determine the illness's true fatality rate until more data is collected from the pandemic.

"There are probably many cases going unconfirmed at this point."

"There are probably many cases going unconfirmed at this point," Veenema said. "It’s still really difficult to say with any certainty."

The number of diagnosed cases in the United States surpassed 10,000 Thursday, with more than 150 deaths.

The study authors acknowledged that their findings may not be applicable to other countries — especially if those countries contain the virus better or have more treatment options available than Wuhan and the rest of China did.

"The precise fatality risk estimates may not be generalizable to those outside the original epicenter, especially during subsequent phases of the epidemic," they wrote.

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