Our mission at ENCORE Research includes educating our community about health care news, particularly when standard media sources sensationalize the news. The coronavirus or COVID-19 story falls into this category. Patients and family members are asking, “How worried should we be?”
Our simple advice, “Don’t panic, but take sensible precautions.” Recent data, often reported incompletely, support the idea that we should think about COVID-19 as a bad strain of the flu.
New viruses are scary. Will these pathogens lead to minor nuisance illnesses like the common cold or horrible consequences like EBOLA, which kills nearly 90% of its victims? … or be more like the flu? Most people can understand and calibrate the severity of a virus based on their experience with the flu. Over the last decade, based on Center for Disease Control (CDC) statistics, the flu infects between 3-15% of all Americans each (mostly winter) season. Between 1 and 2% of flu victims require hospitalization and between 0.1 and 0.2% of victims die of complications of the illness. Death from the flu occurs mostly in infants, the very old and in folks with immune deficiency or other significant chronic illness.
For COVID-19, the initial reports of death rates of 4% in China and 10% in Iran now appear to reflect poor reporting (local officials and our media) and selective testing of patients. To make an accurate estimate of a death rate you need to know the total number of tests administered (which the media doesn’t typically report) to get a sense of whether all of the positive + tests are being captured. Otherwise, the death rate reflects what happens only to the sickest patients, those already on death’s door when they receive testing, rather than the full spectrum of disease.
As of this past weekend, we have good data to review to help us understand the true death rate of COVID-19. As of March 2, in South Korea, a hard hit country with a good healthcare system, the death rate is 0.51% (< 1%). South Korea has deployed extensive resources for testing of coronavirus. South Korea has now reported 22 deaths occurring among 4,335 patients infected by COVID-19 out more than 100,000 patients tested. The large number of tests and the relatively low number of positive tests helps us feel confident that South Korea has identified most patients with the illness, an essential part of the equation needed to determine the true death rate.
The South Korean death rate likely reflects a maximum rate of death. We suspect that the death rate will be lower in the US since we have had more warning and will intervene earlier with antiviral medications and support.
The low death rate is good news. Unfortunately, this good news has a down side. Because of the mild illness that results from infection in most folks who contract it, COVID-19 will likely spread extensively before it winds down. Ironically, there is a tradeoff between viral spread and lethality. The worst viruses, like EBOLA, kill most infected people, but do not spread widely because people get sick quickly and have far fewer contacts. With the flu or COVID-19, people may have minor symptoms that allow them to function in society and spread the virus. Governor DeSantis of Florida announced the first confirmed cases in the state on Sunday (March 1) and more cases will certainly occur, probably many more cases.
Another part of our mission at ENCORE involves helping to get new medical therapies to patients. We participate as an active research site in the medical product development system. We have already received contact about our ability to test a coronavirus vaccine in healthy patients wishing to avoid illness. These studies focus on prevention. We have assured the manufactures of the vaccines that we are poised and ready to jump in for the clinical study.
Many antiviral drugs “sit on the shelves” of pharmaceutical companies that have had proven efficacy against the SARS and MERS viruses – similar in structure but more deadly than COVID-19. We have no reason to believe that some of these drugs will not work against COVID-19, but they remain untested. At this time, since we do not have any patients with COVID-19 at our clinics, we will not participate in the treatment studies. However, if things change, we will respond.
So, what to do now?
If you would like to be on standby as a volunteer for a healthy patient vaccine study let us know. Contact – 904-730-0166 or Jaxresearch.com. In the meantime, wash your hands like crazy, keep hand sanitizer in the car and/or office, and use it at least 5 times a day during cold and flu season!
Michael J. Koren, MD, FACC, CPI