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COVID-19 survival rate not proof vaccine unnecessary

August 31, 2020 GMT

CLAIM: A vaccine is not necessary for COVID-19 because the survival rate is close to 100%. 

AP’S ASSESSMENT: Missing context. Though scientists have estimated that fewer than 1% of all COVID-19 infections result in death, the virus has claimed more than 847,000 lives worldwide. Furthermore, focusing on survival rate does not take into account the medical resources needed to keep some hospitalized patients alive or the long-term health consequences many face.

THE FACTS: Scientists are still working to determine just how deadly COVID-19 is. They are trying to determine the virus’ “infection fatality rate,” which is the number of people who die from COVID-19 out of everyone who is infected by the virus — including untested, undetected cases. 

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One analysis using data from different sources published by May 2020 estimates an infection fatality rate of 0.68%. That paper has not yet been published or peer-reviewed. The CDC has estimated a similar figure for the United States, 0.65%. These estimates suggest on average, more than 99% of all COVID-19 infections do not result in death.

The survival rate falls when looking at deaths as a percentage of known COVID-19 infections. In the United States, 3.1% of all known COVID-19 cases resulted in death and 96.9% did not, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. There have been 183,203 known COVID-19 deaths in the country out of 6,002,615 known cases, according to the same data.

But popular Facebook posts cite the survival rate as grounds to say a vaccine is not necessary. “With the survival rate of “CORONA” close to 100% without a vaccine. What exactly will the purpose of the new vaccine be?” reads one such post.

The post fails to note that a high survival rate doesn’t mean there aren’t a significant number of deaths. So far, more than 847,000 COVID-19 deaths have been recorded globally out of 25.3 million recorded cases, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Scientists say fatalities will continue to rise without a vaccine. 

Though the infection fatality rate is a useful measure for scientists, it is an average. The likelihood that a COVID-19 infection will result in death increases with age and if the patient has a pre-existing condition.

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Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said focusing on survival rates also leaves out the effort and resources it takes to keep hospitalized COVID-19 patients from dying, the toll on the healthcare system and the long-term health effects many patients have even when they survive.  

“A vaccine is critical as a public health intervention for a virus that is novel,” Chin-Hong told the AP. He said COVID-19 will keep circulating indefinitely. “In order to effectively prevent deadly outbreaks in the community, at least 70% of the population will need to have some sort of immunity (herd immunity). This can only be achieved by a vaccine as large scale immunity to this infection is not possible via natural infection without more loss of life.”

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This is part of The Associated Press’ ongoing effort to fact-check misinformation that is shared widely online, including work with Facebook to identify and reduce the circulation of false stories on the platform.

Here’s more information on Facebook’s fact-checking program: https://www.facebook.com/help/1952307158131536