Fact Check: COVID-19 Is NOT 'The Most Highly Survivable Virus'

Fact Check

  • by: Dean Miller
Fact Check: COVID-19 Is NOT 'The Most Highly Survivable Virus' Heard of Mono?

Is COVID-19 the most highly survivable virus? No, that's not true: Chickenpox and Epstein-Barr (mononucleosis) are widespread and rarely lethal. Effective vaccines make those and lethal viruses like rabies and smallpox almost 100% survivable in the U.S. Meanwhile, the novel coronavirus killed 200,000 Americans and 972,000 worldwide by Sept. 23, 2020.

The claim originated in a Facebook post (archived here) on Sept. 16, 2020, under the title "This Page Will Blow Your Mind." It opened:

Anyone else tired of pretending to be afraid of the most highly survivable virus already?

This is what the post looked like on Facebook at the time of writing:

Facebook screenshot

(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Wed Sep 23 20:04:43 2020 UTC)

The meme text continued: "Putting on a mask to enter a business only to remove it as soon as you made your purchase is soul-crippling for those with remaining brain cells. Stop participating in your enslavement."

While wearing a mask continues to be an issue of debate in parts of the country, a leading immunologist says COVID-19 is far from the most survivable virus.

In a Sept. 23, 2020, interview with Lead Stories, Richard Kennedy, the Ph.D. immunologist in charge of vaccine research at the Mayo Clinic, said there's no way to call COVID-19 "most survivable" unless you ignore the deaths of patients older than 55. From Kennedy:

Do they mean that it's got the lowest mortality rate? Because that's not true. There's plenty of viruses that cause less severe disease and kill far fewer people as a percentage of those infected than this coronavirus.
Do they mean it's killed fewer people than other viruses total? That's also not true. There are plenty of viruses that kill a lot fewer people in the world than this virus."

The common virus with the highest mortality rate is probably rabies, which Kennedy said is 100% lethal if the infection is not treated. But rabies vaccine is part of standard public health measures in the U.S., so there are only about three cases per year nationwide, Kennedy said. The last rabies deaths (2) were in 2018, according to records at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Smallpox, he said, has a whopping 30% mortality rate compared to 3% for COVID-19. But because we vaccinate the population against it, the number of deaths has dropped from 300 million in the 20th century to no cases since the late 1970s.

Kennedy is in charge of the Mayo Clinic effort to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. So far, none has been found safe and effective at Mayo or several other labs working on a vaccine.

While we wait for a vaccine, how does COVID-19 stack up when it comes to survivability?

When thinking about the risk from a virus, Kennedy said, focus on two things: mortality rate and transmissibility. COVID-19 is more transmissible than influenza and, so far, the number of deaths worldwide is about 3% of the number of cases and that is higher than the lethality of seasonal flu.

Kennedy points out the bulk of COVID-19 victims are older than 55.

So, is it the most survivable virus? From Kennedy:

If you're a young kid, yeah, that might be the case. If you are a senior citizen, that's definitely not the case."

Because conspiracists and political partisans have attempted to degrade public trust in COVID-19 case counts and death tallies and testing statistics, some public health experts are encouraging people to look at the average mortality counts for a given country and compare that expected number of deaths to the actual number.

The difference is what is called "excess deaths," a statistic the CDC says will plainly show many more deaths this year than expected, at a time when the pandemic is the major new cause of death.

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Lead Stories is working with the CoronaVirusFacts/DatosCoronaVirus Alliance, a coalition of more than 100 fact-checkers who are fighting misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more about the alliance here.

  Dean Miller

Lead Stories Managing Editor Dean Miller has edited daily and weekly newspapers, worked as a reporter for more than a decade and is co-author of two non-fiction books. After a Harvard Nieman Fellowship, he served as Director of Stony Brook University's Center for News Literacy for six years, then as Senior Vice President/Content at Connecticut Public Broadcasting. Most recently, he wrote the twice-weekly "Save the Free Press" column for The Seattle Times. 

Read more about or contact Dean Miller

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