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Is COVID-19 The Worst Virus in Human History?

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The simple answer is no, not by a long shot. But given the media coverage, it can certainly feel like it.

There are a lot of factors conspiring to make this outbreak seem especially bad. For one, it has been quite some time since the world has experienced a major outbreak.

Prior to 1900, it was relatively difficult for diseases to spread as broadly and quickly as they do today.

However, thanks to modern transportation, global pandemics can now develop relatively quickly.

We also have to consider that there are personal, political and monetary interests behind making the COVID-19 outbreak as scary as possible.

The media, vying for views, is apt to present a more worrying narrative. Politicians, on the other hand, see it as an opportunity to increase spending. And, people, in general, can get a lot of attention by sharing the scariest posts on social media.

It’s a Concern, Not the End of the World

The reality is that this is not an exceptionally deadly virus outbreak. In fact, it isn’t even the first coronavirus outbreak, nor the deadliest of the coronavirus outbreaks.

However, precisely because it’s less deadly, it might be more dangerous and harder to control.

The official designation for the current outbreak is COVID-19, but the virus itself is SARS-Cov-2. Sound familiar?

Yep, this is another strain of the SARS (Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak from 2002-03. That outbreak had a mortality rate of nearly 10% and was contained relatively quickly, with just over 8K people being infected.

Historic Cases

Many have drawn parallels between this outbreak and prior viral pandemics. One that is often referenced is the 1918 “Spanish flu” which ravaged the world at the conclusion of WWI.

About a quarter of the world’s population was infected, with around 50 million deaths.

The Spanish flu actually originated in China, but it’s a completely different virus than the current pandemic: influenza.

Influenza is a seasonal infection that kills around 250,000 people around the world each year. The 1918 pandemic wasn’t an especially deadly virus. However, the lack of hygiene, malnourishment, and the spread of bacteria all contributed to so many people dying.

Wash Your Hands

That last point is one of the leading reasons that we haven’t had a major pandemic in a relatively long time.

Regular hygiene helps prevent the spread of deadly viruses and secondary bacterial infections which might come later.

When thinking of pandemics, some could have the “black” or bubonic plague in mind. However, the cause of the plague was bacterial, not viral. There was also cholera, which has claimed more lives than most viral outbreaks. However, that too is bacterial.

The Worst of the Worst

The viral outbreak that many people don’t think of as one of the worst in history is the smallpox outbreak in the Americas following contact with Europeans.

Estimates range to up to 90% of the population succumbing to the disease and killing well over 100 million people.

Despite the lethality of smallpox, it has been virtually eradicated from the world thanks to vaccination.

This brings us to how we hope to deal with the current pandemic. The idea is to try and contain the spread long enough for a vaccine to be developed.

There are over 100 institutions in the world currently trying to develop a vaccine. When one is finally proven to be effective, that likely will be the definitive end to coronavirus fears.

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