June 24, 2022

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Has Covid become less dangerous than flu?

Has Covid become less dangerous than flu?
Massimiliano FinziThe vast majority of people infected with Covid-19 in England now have a marginally lower risk of dying than people who catch seasonal flu, an analysis of official data has found. The Financial Times reported that owing to “a combination of high levels of immunity and the reduced severity of the Omicron variant”, the proportion…

Covid-19 test

Massimiliano Finzi

The vast majority of people infected with Covid-19 in England now have a marginally lower risk of dying than people who catch seasonal flu, an analysis of official data has found. 

The Financial Times reported that owing to “a combination of high levels of immunity and the reduced severity of the Omicron variant”, the proportion of Covid-19 infections that result in death has dipped to 35 per 100,000 cases.

By contrast, the equivalent number of flu cases would result in about 40 deaths, according to calculations by the paper’s chief data reporter John Burn-Murdoch and health reporter Oliver Barnes.

At the peak of last winter’s Alpha wave, before the UK’s mass vaccination programme had begun, Covid-19 was killing more than 1,000 of every 100,000 infected Britons.

“Is Omicron the same as flu? No. But the vaccines have made the risks to the individual very similar,” said Dr Raghib Ali, senior clinical research associate in epidemiology at Cambridge University. So a “large spike” in hospital admissions or deaths was “unlikely” while Omicron remained the dominant strain, he added.

A separate analysis of government figures by the Daily Mail put the Covid-19 infection fatality rate at around 0.03%. The rate for seasonal flu was between 0.01% and 0.05%, suggesting that for the first time in the pandemic, “the two viruses now pose a similar threat”, the paper reported.

The transmissibility factor

Despite the drop in the Covid infection fatality rate, experts are calling for caution.

Omicron’s rapid transmissibility meant “the threat of Covid could still not be equated to flu”, Christina Pagel, professor of operational research at University College London and a member of the Independent Sage group of scientific experts, told the FT.

The paper’s Burn-Murdoch agreed that while Covid-19 had become less lethal on a per-infection basis, the “sheer volume” of infections meant the risk of death over the winter from respiratory illness has “remained elevated”. These deaths were about 50% higher than over a “typical” flu season, demonstrating that the virus was still significantly adding to the winter disease burden, he said in a Twitter thread.

Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious diseases expert from the University of East Anglia, told the Daily Mail that there also “remains uncertainty about the impact of future variants”.

As Nature magazine noted last month, “there is no guarantee that the next dominant variant will sprout from the ‘mild’ Omicron branch of the Sars-CoV-2 family tree”.

And as the Mail pointed out, real time infection-fatality rates “can vary drastically” in countries across the world “based on previous immunity, prevalence of obesity and other medical conditions, and the population age structure”.

Professor Julian Hiscox, chair of infection and global health at Liverpool University, also cautioned against “complacency”, and called for the UK’s spring booster jab programme to be widened from just over-75s and immunosuppressed people to all over-50s.

“We want to avoid dithering with the extra booster now and then getting caught on the back foot,” Hiscox told the FT. 

“All of this could be academic if a new variant comes along,” he warned.

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