As the coronavirus pandemic approaches a year, speculations as to whether the COVID-19 virus is in fact, becoming less deadly are circulating. Statistical evidence shows that in some areas, whilst the coronavirus infection rate remains high, the likelihood of death or severe infection may be lesser. Scientists and experts are as yet uncertain if and why these patterns are emerging and a variety of elements could be at play. It is still of vital importance that people follow the social distancing measures and safe protocols in set place, such as washing hands thoroughly, keeping at a distance of 1-2 metres, wearing a mask where possible and avoiding crowded areas. It is still not evident that the worst is over and what exactly is happening is not yet clear, so it is still important to safeguard against the virus as directed.
The statistics demonstrating a change in death rates, come mainly from European countries, including the United Kingdom. Although COVID cases are rising in some areas and even causing local lockdowns, the number of severe cases, hospital admissions and deaths are not necessarily following the upward spike as they did at the beginning of the pandemic. Some sources go as far as to suggest that hospital admissions and COVID related deaths are at a record low both in Britain and other European countries. New Scientist reported:
‘In England, the proportion of people infected by the coronavirus who later died was certainly lower in early August than it was in late June. Over the period, this infection fatality rate (IFR) dropped by between 55 and 80 per cent, depending on which data set was used, found Jason Oke at the University of Oxford and his colleagues.’
“This doesn’t seem to be the same disease or as lethal as it was earlier on when we saw huge numbers of people dying,” he says. For example, the week beginning 17 August saw 95 people die and just over 7000 cases across the UK. In the first week of April, 7164 died and nearly 40,000 tested positive.’
One argument for the difference in the death rates could be that the pattern of the pandemic has now changed. Earlier in the year, it was indicated that although young people were not immune or safe from the virus, older and more vulnerable people were at risk of a more serious case. The World Health Organisation recently announced that young people could now be at greater risk of catching the virus than before, following spikes have been seen in younger age groups in some European countries. The Financial Times reported: “the share of people diagnosed with coronavirus aged between 18 and 64 increased from a weekly average of 24% to over 40%” and that this could be due to the elderly and vulnerable being better protected whilst younger people are resuming normality. Other speculations compare it with the Spanish Flu, where a second wave of the disease could target the younger demographic.
However, statistics still show a large proportion of older people catching the virus. The Guardian wrote: ‘Other researchers point to the situation in the US where there was a recent spike in cases among people in their 20s and 30s – but which was then followed by a spike in cases in older people who picked up the disease from younger people. As a result, there has been a jump in deaths. A similar pattern could occur in Europe and in the UK, possibly in a couple of weeks, some scientists warn.’
Other scientists argue that the drop-in death rates could be partly due to the D614G mutation of the coronavirus. Many viruses tend to become less deadly after time as they need hosts to survive. Paul Tambyah, senior consultant at Singapore’s National University Hospital and president-elect of the International Society of Infectious Diseases, told Reuters: “Maybe that’s a good thing to have a virus that is more infectious but less deadly… It is in the virus’ interest to infect more people but not to kill them because a virus depends on the host for food and for shelter.” However, other researchers do not necessarily agree with the posit that the D614G is less deadly, and the theory is yet to be proven.
There are plenty of other factors that are at play including an increase in testing. Testing programmes are catching a higher proportion of people with mild or no symptoms, which could effectively skew the fatality ratio. Above this, healthcare workers are better at assessing the disease and are able to treat it more effectively. The use of the drug dexamethasone has also reportedly helped in the treatment of coronavirus cases. Further, following lockdown and social distancing procedures in place, people may be exposed to smaller ‘doses’ of the virus and perhaps not getting as sick.