COVID-19; is it time to hit the PANIC button?

Say hello to the madness; we are in a pandemic. In my last column I mentioned that the spread outside of China was still rare. Eeeuh, that didn’t age well… Today, three different continents are confronted with outbreaks of the virus, probably others will follow soon. Thousands are infected and a percentage of them have died. Since the virus hit the West it almost seems the world is in panic mode. There is such an overflow of good/vague/bad information surrounding this outbreak that is hard to keep track of it all and put things in perspective.

Luckily, I am here to change that: your very own, Thailand based, Infectious Disease Epidemiologist.

CO-NA-NA, what’s my name?

The issue with a new disease is that it is hard to immediately give it the right name. Some parents might now this feeling, waiting days after a birth to name their kid. The current disease almost changed names more often than Sean Combs, Puff Daddy, P. Diddy, Diddy, Puffy, Fluffy, Duffy, H. Duffy, Hilary Duffy, Hilary Duff did.

Today we call what used to be the “Wuhan-virus”, the “Corona Virus”, the “nCoV” by its WHO approved official name: COVID-19. It stands for “COronaVIrus Disease”-2019 (let’s don’t do a 2020 or 2021 version), the virus itself is called SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2).

FACT 1 : COVID-19 (still) not as bad as previous outbreaks

Let’s update the table from the last blog:

Year 2019 2012 2002 2009
Origin country China Saudi Arabia China Mexico
Source Bats Dromedary camels Bats Swines
Number of people infected to date 82.294 2.494 8.096 208.269
Case fatality Susp. 2% 37% 9.6%% 4.20%
Countries with reported infections 57 27 27 175
Countries outside origin with reported deaths 7 16 8 124; MERS-CoV: Middle East Respiratory syndrome; SARS-CoV: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome; H1N1: Swine flu

Although COVID-19 seems to be “better” than SARS, MERS and H1N1, it loses the battle in a who-is-a-good-disease competition to seasonal flu. In comparison with the seasonal flu COVID-19 has a higher case-fatality ratio. Seasonal flu has approximately 0.5% mortality rate, COVID-19 currently has a 2% rate (please read FACT 3).  COVID-19 also has a higher reproduction number; seasonal flu infects about 1 to 1.5 other person (tiny persons also count for 1, it is just statistics), COVID-19 appears to infect 1.5-2.5 other person. This means that COVID-19 could spread more widely. Lastly, for seasonal flu we have a vaccine!

FACT 2 : Younger than 50? No reason to panic

(Rest assured: this does not imply the following: Older than 50? Call your local undertaker at 555-…..)

Let me remind you that Coronaviruses have been among us humans for a long time already. Yes, this is a new variant and yes, it is more severe than the previously known ones, but if you look at the figures published by the Centers for Disease Control, China, you can see that if you’re younger than 50 years old, you will be fine.

And even if you do catch the virus, you would probably not even go to see a doctor. Symptoms are fever, dry cough and shortness of breath but range from mild (80% of the cases), severe (14% of the cases) and critically ill (5% of the cases).

Men are at higher risk of dying from COVID-19 than women (rate 3,25 to 1). And people with underlying illnesses like COPD (smoking history), diabetes or a bad working immune system due to medication or old age are also at higher risk [1]. These vulnerable groups are also the people that we usually give the vaccine for seasonal flu. You can see how they are at higher risk of dying from the COVID-19.

Also, <10 years old there have been (to date) no deaths and very few infections reported.

Characteristics Confirmed cases, Deaths, Case fatality
N (%) N (%) rate, %
Overall 44,672 1,023 2.3
Age, years
 0–9 416 (0.9)
 10–19 549 (1.2) 1 (0.1) 0.2
 20–29 3,619 (8.1) 7 (0.7) 0.2
 30–39 7,600 (17.0) 18 (1.8) 0.2
 40–49 8,571 (19.2) 38 (3.7) 0.4
 50–59 10,008 (22.4) 130 (12.7) 1.3
 60–69 8,583 (19.2) 309 (30.2) 3.6
 70–79 3,918 (8.8) 312 (30.5) 8.0
 ≥80 1,408 (3.2) 208 (20.3) 14.8


Just to clarify: these current mortality rates only apply on people of whom it is determined that they have COVID-19 (see again FACT 3). If you don’t have COVID-19: well, don’t text and drive!

FACT 3 You can have the virus and be fine

The symptoms of COVID-19, like I stated above, can be very mild with just some cough and runny nose. Recently, Yan Bai et al. published an interesting article of how even asymptomatic carriers can transmit the virus [3]. This means that you can be infected with COVID-19 and not have any symptoms.
That sheds an interesting light on the 2% mortality rate in FACT 1. If we would test the whole world, we would probably get a higher number of infected persons. Infected persons without even knowing it. This affects the mortality rate: which is deaths from the virus divided by persons infected by the virus. If currently more persons are unknowingly infected the mortality rate could be much lower (as the nominator increases). The absolute number of deaths of course doesn’t change, which is sad, but it might put the severity of the COVID-19 in a different perspective.

Conclusion: during an outbreak it is super difficult to make sense of any of the numbers and to have a complete picture of the outbreak.

FACT 4 Closing an office for 48 hours is pointless

Some companies close their office for two days when an employee is found to have COVID-19. The reason? Intensive cleaning of the office. This does not solve anything!

Yes, the virus can survive long on surfaces, so a good cleaning is very smart. But if after the big cleaning you will re-open the office again you might as well not have bothered. Persons have the disease in them for at least two weeks … spreading it to others … who probably come back to the office on day 3 … you understand where I am heading?

Recently I was in a hotel and at check in they took my temperature and every morning before breakfast they checked me before I could enter the breakfast room. That is a much smarter way to contain the outbreak. That gives us FACT 5.

FACT 5 Do’s and don’ts

Do Don’t
Wash hands regular Go to the current outbreak hotspots
Use desinfecting handgel Go to a place where you are packed with other people with potential bad hygiene
Sneeze and cough in elbow Panic
Read scientific facts Trust Facebook
Think twice before traveling anywhere Panic!!

Do the do’s and stay home when you have any symptoms and you are helping to stop this outbreak.

Well done, stay smart, until a next update!



  1. Sun P, Lu X, Xu C, Sun W, Pan B. Understanding of COVID-19 based on current evidence. J Med Virol 2020.
  2. The Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia Emergency Response Epidemiology Team. The Epidemiological Characteristics of an Outbreak of 2019 Novel Coronavirus Diseases (COVID-19) — China, 2020[J]. China CDC Weekly, 2020, 2(8): 113-122.
  3. Bai Y, Yao L, Wei T, et al. Presumed Asymptomatic Carrier Transmission of COVID-19. JAMA.Published online February 21, 2020. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.2565



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