Coronavirus mortality rate likely to drop, say health experts

The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) made a startling pronouncement this week when he estimated the global mortality rate of the coronavirus to be 3.4 percent — much higher than the seasonal flu.

Experts warn that the figure from WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus comes full of caveats and is likely to change as more people get tested and undergo treatment for the virus.

"I think it's lower because we are missing mild cases," said Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. "We should be preparing for [the worst] cases, it's true, but also going out to see what the real number is."

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Health officials have raced to try to get ahead of the coronavirus as it rapidly spreads around the world. According to the WHO, there are more than 95,000 reported cases of COVID-19 globally, with nearly 3,300 deaths.

In the U.S., the number of cases has grown on a nearly daily basis, with at least 162 people across 18 states now reporting positive test results, with those numbers expected to grow. Twelve people have died of the virus in the U.S.

Health experts say that the longer the outbreak continues, the more likely it is that the global mortality rate will drop.

The first cases of the virus only began appearing in China in January.

Rebecca Katz, director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University, said the early stages of the outbreak mean there's still a lot of information that experts don't know.

"Folks want to be able to understand what the true risk is. They want to know just how deadly is it, how deadly is it to me? The challenge is, we don’t totally know," Katz said. 

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So far, the virus appears to be hitting certain populations, like the elderly, much harder than others. That may skew the numbers further toward the more severe. 

"These percentages aren't fixed properties of the virus," Nuzzo said. "It's also because of the host — if the host is sick, there are different concerns because of underlying conditions."

U.S. health officials have been quick to point out the concerns over the WHO's estimated mortality rate after Ghebreyesus said Tuesday that it was about 3.4 percent.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump fires intelligence community inspector general who flagged Ukraine whistleblower complaint Trump organization has laid off over 1000 employees due to pandemic: report Trump invokes Defense Production Act to prevent export of surgical masks, gloves MORE himself on Wednesday forcefully questioned the WHO estimate, saying during a phone interview on Sean HannitySean Patrick HannityHannity blasts criticism of Fox News: 'I have taken this seriously' California governor responds to Nunes on canceling school: 'We'll continue to listen to the experts' 74 journalism professors accuse Fox News of spreading coronavirus misinformation MORE's Fox News show that his "hunch" was that it was much lower.

“I think the 3.4 percent is really a false number, and this is just my hunch, but based on a lot of conversations with a lot of people that do this because a lot of people will have this and it’s very mild. They’ll get better very rapidly, they don’t even see a doctor, they don’t even call a doctor. You never hear about these people,” Trump said.

U.S. health officials have acknowledged that the WHO is right to say the virus appears deadlier than the seasonal flu, even if they may disagree with the estimated mortality rate.

“The best estimates now of the overall mortality rate for COVID-19 is somewhere between 0.1 percent and 1 percent. That’s lower than you’ve heard probably in many reports,” Assistant Secretary of Health Brett Giroir said Thursday during an appearance on Capitol Hill.

“This is likely more severe in its mortality rate than a typical flu season, but it’s certainly within the range. So we don’t want people to go crazy,” he added.

Giroir also pointed out the problems with trying to track people with mild cases.

"If you're really sick and you have respiratory failure, and you go see someone, and you get tested, but if you're not very ill, they do not get tested," Giroir said. "The main point is if you're young and healthy you are likely to have a very mild illness."

The mortality rates from coronavirus have also varied from country to country, with South Korea, as one example, showing a much lower mortality rate — something that has been credited to the increased testing in that country.

Top political appointees in the Trump administration have publicly said they trust the health experts, but have struggled to deliver a coherent message about the outbreak. The administration is also scrambling to ramp up its own testing capacity after being caught flat-footed.

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Vice President Pence said Thursday that the U.S. "distributed 1,500 kits, with roughly 500 tests each so there’s roughly about a million and a half tests going out to hospitals."

But he said they still don't have enough to meet demand.

"We don’t have enough tests today to meet what we anticipate will be the demand going forward," he said. 

Nuzzo said expanding testing is "critical" to finding a more exact mortality rate.

"It's critical for us to expand testing. We need to do it in a way ... beyond hospitals, so we can see how many cases are out there," Nuzzo said. 

Reid Wilson contributed