The novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China, has swept across the globe, infecting about 31,500 people as of press time. But a persistent question has permeated the public consciousness: Is this new viral terror less or more dangerous than other infectious diseases?
Every major epidemic spawns some brand of this mental exercise, and for good reason. Health officials and regular citizens set their priorities based on the general risk to the public. This week, the World Health Organization announced plans to dole out $675 million on the barely month-old outbreak of novel coronavirus. By contrast, the agency has raised a third of this amount from international partners to combat the Ebola epidemic in central Africa, which has been raging since August 2018.
Pitting these hazards against each other calls on a complicated calculus, which weighs factors like how contagious a disease is versus fatalities and severe outcomes, versus the socioeconomic ramifications of locking down a region. (Find out what life is like inside the quarantined city of Wuhan.)
Even a simple comparison of death rates can struggle to yield a judgment on the worst infectious foe. For example, influenza—whether it be seasonal or an emerging strain like H1N1—can infect millions of people, but it kills a relatively low portion of its cases, about 0.1 percent. Pandemic coronaviruses— like SARS, MERS, and the novel strain from China—are far more severe. SARS killed about 10 percent of its cases, but it only created about 8,000 confirmed infections.
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