Covid has killed as many Americans as the 1918-19 flu
COVID-19 has now killed nearly as many Americans as the 1918-19 Spanish Flu pandemic — nearly 675,000. And like the world’s scourge a century ago, the coronavirus may not completely disappear from among us.
Instead, scientists hope that the virus that causes COVID-19 will become a mild seasonal bug as human immunity is strengthened through vaccination and repeated infection. This will take some time.
“Hopefully it’s like catching a cold, but there’s no guarantee,” said Emory University biologist Rustam Antea, who suggests an optimistic scenario in which this could happen over a few years.
For now, the pandemic is still gripping the United States and other parts of the world firmly.
The increase in new infections fueled by the delta may have peaked, but deaths in the US are still running at more than 1,900 per day on average, the highest since early March, and the country’s total death toll is nearly 674,000 as of Monday morning, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, although the true number is believed to be higher.
Winter may bring a new boom, although it will be less deadly than last year, according to one influential model. The University of Washington model projects that 100,000 or so Americans will die of COVID-19 by January 1, bringing the total US death toll to 776,000.
The 1918-19 influenza pandemic killed an estimated 675,000 Americans, a third of the US population that it is today. It infected 50 million victims globally at a time when a quarter of the world’s population was as it is now. The global death toll from COVID-19 is now over 4.6 million.
Death figures from the Spanish flu are rough guesses, given the incomplete records of the era and poor scientific understanding of what caused the disease. The 675,000 figure comes from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A regression of COVID-19 can happen if the virus gradually weakens as it mutates and more and more human immune systems learn to attack it. Vaccination and surviving infection are the two main ways to improve the immune system. Breastfed babies gain some immunity from their mothers.
Under this optimistic scenario, schoolchildren would develop a mild illness that trains their immune systems. When they get older, children carry the memory of the immune response, so that the coronavirus is no more dangerous than cold viruses when they get older and weak.
The same applies to teenagers who have been vaccinated today: their immune system will be strengthened through injections and mild infections.
“We will all get infected,” Antea predicted. “What is important is whether the infection is severe.”
Something similar happened with the H1N1 influenza virus, the culprit in the 1918-19 pandemic. She encountered a lot of people who were immune, and she was also eventually weakened by the mutation. The H1N1 virus is still circulating today, but human acquired immunity from infection and vaccination has won out.
Getting your annual flu shot now protects against H1N1 and many other flu strains. The flu certainly kills between 12,000 and 61,000 Americans each year, but on average it is a seasonal and manageable problem.
Prior to COVID-19, the 1918-19 influenza was universally considered the worst pandemic disease in human history. It is unclear whether the current pest will eventually prove to be more lethal.
In many ways, the 1918-19 flu—mistakenly called the Spanish flu because it first received widespread news coverage in Spain—was worse.
It spread due to hopping in World War I, and killed young, healthy adults in droves. There was no vaccine to slow it down, and there were no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections. And, of course, the world’s population was much smaller than it is today.
However, air travel and mass migrations threaten to increase the toll of the current pandemic. Much of the world is not immune. Corona virus was full of surprises.
Medical historian Dr. Howard Markell of the University of Michigan said he is constantly amazed at the scale of the disruption the pandemic has caused to the planet.
“I was astonished by the scale of the quarantine that the Chinese government conducted at first, and since then I have been stunned to the ninth degree,” Markel said. The slow pace of American vaccinations is the latest source of surprise.
“The big pockets of American society—and worse, their leaders—have given up on this,” Markel said of the opportunity to vaccinate every eligible person now.
Less than 64% of the US population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, with state rates ranging from about 77% in Vermont and Massachusetts to as low as 46% to 49% in Idaho, Wyoming, West Virginia and Mississippi.
Globally, about 43% of the population has received at least one dose, according to Our World in Data, with some African countries just beginning to give their first vaccines.
“We know that all pandemics end,” said Dr. Jeremy Brown, director of emergency care research at the National Institutes of Health, who has written a book on influenza. “They can do terrible things while they need to.”
Brown said COVID-19 could have been much less deadly in the United States if more people were vaccinated faster, “and we still have a chance to turn the situation around.” For a given. “
Current vaccines are doing very well in preventing severe illness and death from variants of the virus that have emerged so far.
Antea said it will be necessary for scientists to ensure that the ever-mutating virus has not mutated enough to evade vaccines or cause serious illness in unvaccinated children. Such shifts require an adjustment in defense strategies and will mean a longer path to the post-pandemic world.
If the virus changes significantly, a new vaccine using the technology behind the Pfizer and Moderna shots could be produced within 110 days, a Pfizer executive said Wednesday. The company is studying whether annual vaccinations with the current vaccine will be required to keep immunity high.
One plus: the coronavirus mutates at a slower rate than influenza viruses, making it a more stable target for vaccination, said Anne-Marie Kimball, a retired University of Washington professor of epidemiology.
So, will the current pandemic defeat the 1918-19 influenza pandemic as the worst in human history?
“You would like to say no. We have a lot more infection control, we have a lot more capacity to support patients. We have modern medicine,” Kimball said. “But we have a lot of people and a lot of mobility. …the fear is that a new strain will eventually mutate around a particular vaccine target.”
“The problem is that you have to survive after infection to gain immunity,” Kimball said of those unvaccinated individuals who rely on infection rather than vaccination for immune protection. She said it was easier to go to the pharmacy and get an injection.
Associated Press health writer Tom Murphy in Indianapolis contributed to this report.
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