Coronavirus vs flu: Which is a bigger threat?

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The Wuhan coronavirus – named ‘2019-nCoV’ by WHO – has prompted authorities around the world to take extreme measures to contain its spread. There have been more than 17,000 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide. At least 360 people have lost their lives to the deadly virus. As of February 03, there are 11 confirmed cases in the US. The public is obviously alarmed. On the other hand is the familiar influenza virus that has infected millions in the US, and killed many. Is the Wuhan coronavirus a bigger threat than the flu? Let’s find it out in this coronavirus vs flu comparison.

The new coronavirus has spread to at least 20 countries including the Philippines, Japan, the UK, the US, Canada, South Korea, Germany, Thailand, Vietnam, and others. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared it a global public health emergency. A number of countries such as the US and India have evacuated their citizens from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the new coronavirus originated.

In contrast, there have been at least 19 million cases of the flu in the United States alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

What is the coronavirus?

The 2019-nCoV is one of the many viruses in the Coronavirus family. The coronaviruses generally infect animals, but can sometimes also spread to humans. They can be transmitted by touching something touched by an infected person and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes without washing your hands.

Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they originate in animals, but can also spread to humans. The novel coronavirus is said to have originated in China’s wet markets. The wet markets are where vendors, buyers, and live and dead animals are in close proximity. It increases the risk of such viruses jumping from live or dead animals to humans.

Health officials haven’t been able to determine from which animal the novel coronavirus jumped into humans. But experts believe it came from the Chinese cobra. Scientists who edit the Journal of Medical Virology told ScienceNews that the genetic makeup of the 2019-nCoV closely resembled that of snakes.

Coronavirus vs flu: Transmission and symptoms

In any viral infection, doctors and scientists look at whether the virus can spread even when the symptoms are not visible. The coronavirus could take up to 14 days to show symptoms. Chinese health officials have found that a coronavirus-infected person could transmit the virus even before the symptoms are visible. Another study has shown that children could transmit the coronavirus during the incubation period.

The flu can also spread even before people start showing symptoms. That’s one of the reasons it’s highly contagious.

The most common symptoms of the novel coronavirus are fever, fatigue, dry cough, shortness of breath, and aching muscles. In severe cases, there is headache, phlegm buildup, and pneumonia. The coronavirus infects the lower respiratory tract. So, patients are unlikely to have sore throat or a runny nose.

In contrast, the common symptoms of the flu include body aches, headache, runny nose, sore throat, cough, and fatigue. In severe cases, it could also cause pneumonia and brain inflammation.

Which is a bigger threat?

One reason people are freaking out about the coronavirus is that China is more connected to the rest of the world than ever before. It significantly increased the chances of the virus spreading to other countries. According to former USFDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, the new coronavirus is highly contagious.

There have been more than 17,000 confirmed coronavirus cases. The virus has killed at least 360 people. But it’s too early to estimate the mortality rate of 2019-nCoV. According to WHO, its fatality rate is in the range of 3% to 4%. More cases are still being reported and infected patients are still being treated, so these are only the initial estimates.

Most people who have died due to the Wuhan coronavirus had underlying health conditions such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, hypertension, or they were elderly. The underlying health issues had already weakened their immune systems.

The flu’s fatality rate of 0.05% to 0.1% is much lower than the coronavirus. But it’s highly contagious, which makes it a much bigger threat, at least for the Americans. According to CDC, there have been about 19 million cases of the flu in the ongoing influenza season in the US. At least 180,000 people were hospitalized. So far, the flu has killed an estimated 100,000 people in the US.

As per the WHO, seasonal influenza epidemics cause 3-5 million critical cases worldwide ever year. The flu kills about 650,000 every year globally. These numbers suggest the flu is a much bigger threat than the coronavirus.

Coronavirus vs flu: Treatments

There is no treatment available for the Wuhan coronavirus yet. Treatment for those who do contract the virus is focused on relieving the symptoms it causes. In severe cases, treatment also includes supporting vital organ functions, according to the CDC.

The best thing you can do right now is to avoid contracting it. Prevention methods include washing hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Other precautionary measures include avoiding touching your mouth, nose and eyes with unwashed hands.

A number of companies including Novavax, Novartis, Inovio, and Moderna are working on preliminary vaccines. Swiss pharma giant Novartis believes it will take 9-12 months to find a new vaccine for the Wuhan coronavirus.

The flu can be treated using antiviral drugs. According to the CDC, the antiviral drugs can reduce the time you are sick, and prevent severe complications. For adults and children older than six months, an annual seasonal flu vaccine is recommended to protect people from the flu.


The flu infects millions of people, and kills tens of thousands every year in the US. But we tend to shrug it off because it’s familiar. The flu season comes every year, and we have tons of vaccines and antiviral drugs. The coronavirus is freaking people out because there is no cure yet and we don’t know much about it, though scientists are working on it.

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