/ 11 March 2020

No, coronavirus isn’t the same as the flu

Health Screenings In Indonesia For The Wuhan Coronavirus
Experts say solving the mystery of how the virus first jumped from animals to humans is crucial to preventing another pandemic. (Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)

The symptoms —  aches and pains, sore throat, fever may feel similar to the seasonal flu but the novel coronavirus is not the same as the seasonal flu. One researcher put it like this, “This new virus resembles the flu in terms of physical symptoms but there are huge differences.” Humans, they point out, have lived with influenza for more than 100 years.

People wearing protective suits walk from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, with around 3,600 people quarantined onboard due to fears of the new coronavirus, at the Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama port on February 10, 2020. – (CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP)


Covid-19, the illness caused by coronavirus, proves deadly in around 3.5 percent of confirmed cases. 

While this is not the same as its mortality rate, given many people may be infected but not realise it, it is significantly higher than seasonal flu, which typically kills 0.1 percent of patients. 

“There is still considerable uncertainty around the fatality rates of Covid-19 and it likely varies depending on the quality of local healthcare,” said Francois Balloux, Professor of Computational Systems Biology at University College London. 

“That said, it is around 2 percent on average, which is about 20 times higher than for the seasonal flu lineages currently in circulation.”

Serious cases

But the true danger of coronavirus is unlikely to be the death toll. Experts say health systems could easily become overwhelmed by the number of cases requiring hospitalisation — and, often ventilation to support breathing.  

An analysis of 45,000 confirmed cases in China, where the epidemic originated, show that the vast majority of deaths were among the elderly (14.8 percent mortality among over 80s).

But another Chinese study showed that 41 percent of serious cases occurred among under 50s, compared with 27 percent among over 65s.

“It’s true that if you’re older you’re at greater risk, but serious cases can also happen in relatively young people with no prior conditions,” said French deputy health minister Jerome Salomon.

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND – FEBRUARY 19: Clinical support technician Douglas Condie extracts viruses from swab samples so that the genetic structure of a virus can be analysed and identified in the coronavirus testing laboratory at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, on February 19, 2020 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Jane Barlow – WPA Pool/Getty Images)


Disease experts estimate that each Covid-19 sufferer infects between 2-3 others.

That’s a reproduction rate up to twice as high as seasonal flu, which typically infects 1.3 new people for each patient.


While some trials have shown promise delivering anti-retroviral drugs to serious cases, as well as some experimental therapies, their sample sizes are too small to roll out to the general population.

Hundreds of researchers around the world are working frantically to find a Covid-19 vaccine, but the development process takes months and is likely to be too late for the current outbreak.

Even if a vaccine magically appeared, getting everyone access it to it is no small order. Health authorities regularly complain that not enough people receive the flu vaccine to guarantee “herd immunity”. 

Keeping it at bay

Here’s where Covid-19 is similar to the flu –The steps we can take to slow the infection rate. 

A worker wearing a protective suit disinfects a Vietnam Airlines plane amid concerns of the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi on March 3, 2020. (Photo by Nhac NGUYEN / AFP)

Avoid shaking hands, frequently wash your hands with soap and water, avoid touching your face and wear a mask if you are sick.

Such actions can limit new infections just as they can with the flu, gastro illnesses and other infectious diseases.

France’s health ministry says that only 2 in 10 people regularly wash their hands after using the bathroom. 

“And only 42 percent of people cover their mouth with an elbow or tissue when they cough or sneeze,” it added, not encouragingly.