Covid-19 compared to other pandemics this century

According to microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles, compared to other pandemics this century Covid-19 is a bad roll of the dice.

Stuff: We lost this round of pandemic dice

I think it helps to think of these outbreaks and pandemics as a handful of dice.

The dice represent:

  • The microbe and how it spreads.
  • What symptoms it causes.
  • How it can be treated and prevented.
  • How each dice falls influences how the outbreak plays out.

With Covid-19, we’ve rolled almost the worst possible combination, with a collection of ones.

Covid isn’t as lethal as the likes of Ebola, but as symptoms are often not noticed or mild, and take time to present, Covid can spread before it is discovered.

Wiles details the other pandemics in the last 20 years, and compares aspects of them to Covid.

Sars (2002-2004)

Sars appeared in late 2002, also caused by a coronavirus that spreads through the respiratory route. Unlike Covid-19, people with Sars had a high fever early in their infection. That made it easier to identify infected people and stop human-to-human transmission.

By mid-2004, Sars was gone and hasn’t been seen since. By then 8000 people had been infected and over 800 had died. Cases had spread to almost 30 countries and territories.

Covid-19 also emerged in a globally connected part of the world and at a time of year when lots of people were moving about.

H1N1 (early 2009 to August 2010)

H1N1 was a variant of the influenza viruses from humans, birds, and pigs that caused a pandemic from early 2009 to August 2010. Like normal seasonal flu, H1N1 spread through the respiratory route. But unlike normal flu, it was more likely to cause breathing difficulties in young, healthy people. Thankfully, a vaccine was available by late 2009. It’s thought H1N1 caused about 500,000 deaths. 

That was over about 18 months.

Ebola (December 2013-June 2016)

The largest Ebola outbreak began in Guinea, West Africa in December 2013 and spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone. Ebola transmits through bodily fluids from symptomatic people. That means it’s easier to stop than Covid-19, in which people are infectious before they realise they have the virus.

While vaccines were in clinical trials by mid-2015, the Ebola outbreak was mainly brought under control by stopping human-to-human transmission. It also helped that it was in a part of the world that isn’t quite so globally connected. The outbreak was officially declared over in June 2016. By then over 28,000 people had been infected and over 11,000 had died.

Ebola had a very high death rate for those infected, but was much more easily contained.

Zika (2015-2016)

Zika is the virus that causes babies to be born with small heads. It’s spread by mosquito bite and caused an outbreak in the Americas, Pacific, and Southeast Asia in 2015 and 2016. In many mosquito species, the females feed on people one time before laying their eggs. Zika is carried by mosquitoes that feed more than once. As a result, they spread the virus from infected to uninfected people as they ate. The outbreak was largely controlled by getting rid of mosquitoes carrying the virus.

Current Covid totals (Worldometer):

  • Total detected cases – 25 million
  • Total attributed deaths – 848,925

The closest comparison is H1N1, with about half the deaths. A vaccine was available within the year it began but it still nearly a year to eliminate it.

New Zealand has got off lightly so far, with just 1,729 cases and 22 deaths.

Initially Australia had a comparable result but after a big outbreak in Victoria cases have jumped to 25,166 and deaths to 611.

We have been mostly successful at containing Covid but the current outbreak in Auckland is a concern. It shows how quickly things can change.