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No consensus on COVID-19 death rate for those under 70

August 14, 2020 GMT

CLAIM: Health officials have determined the COVID-19 death rate for those under 70 is less than the flu, at just 0.04%.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: Missing context. There is no consensus among researchers about how deadly COVID-19 is for different ages. The origin of the .04 percent statistic can be traced to a single scientific research paper that has not yet been peer-reviewed.

THE FACTS: A widely shared post on social media claims, “Breaking: Health officials have now determined the COVID-19 death rate for those under 70 years old is just 0.04% — less than the common flu.”

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But there is not yet consensus among scientists or health officials about how deadly COVID-19 is for different age groups. There is also evidence that age groups between 0 and 70 have widely varying responses to both COVID-19 and the flu. In addition, the term “death rate” is often misused and can refer to different measures.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculates “death rate” as the “number of deaths per 100,000 in population,” according to Jeff Lancashire, a spokesperson for the National Center for Health Statics. But that death rate data is not yet available for the novel coronavirus. “We don’t yet have enough stability in the 2020 data to calculate COVID death rates, though later in the year we should be able to,” Lancashire wrote in an email to the AP.

Another fatality measure scientists use is “case fatality rates,” which are the portion of known COVID-19 cases that have resulted in death. The CDC has recorded 3.38 million known cases of COVID-19 among people under 70 in the United States as of August 12, according to spokesperson Jasmine Reed. Data on outcomes and deaths is not complete, she said, adding that if working with just the known deaths in the under 70 age group, the case fatality rate would be 1.1 percent. That unofficial figure, which under counts deaths because of the incomplete data, is still 27.5 times larger than the “.04 percent” cited on social media. The 1.1 percent figure is also much higher than a commonly cited case fatality rate for people with symptoms of seasonal flu, which is .1 percent.

Scientists are trying to calculate a third fatality measure for COVID-19, the “infection fatality rate.” That measure is the number of COVID-19 deaths as a portion of all COVID-19 infections, which includes infections that were never tested or went undetected in asymptomatic people.

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One of the scientists working to determine the COVID-19 infection fatality rate is Dr. John Ioannidis, a Stanford University professor of medicine, epidemiology and population health. His estimate for people under 70 appears to be the origin of the social media claim.

Ioannidis has been a leading scientific voice arguing the severity of COVID-19 may be overstated.

In a study that appears online but has not yet been peer-reviewed or published by a journal, Ioannidis estimated COVID-19 infection fatality rates by analyzing death figures and pooling data from dozens of antibody studies from all over the world. For those under 70 years old, “infection fatality rates ranged from 0.00% to 0.57% with median of 0.05% across the different locations (corrected median of 0.04%),” Ioannidis wrote.

When asked by the AP about the claim circulating on social media, Ioannidis responded, “Assuming that ‘death rate’ means infection fatality rate, this post is accurate.”

Dr. Scott Atlas, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution who became Trump’s newest coronavirus advisor earlier this week, cited figures that match those in Ioannidis’ findings in a July appearance on Fox News. “We know the infection rate for people under 70 is .04 percent on the latest analysis, that’s less than or equal to seasonal flu,” he said.

A number of epidemiologists, however, have criticized the methodology Ioannidis used to arrive at the .04 percent figure.

Other research has shown the likelihood of death from COVID-19 varies greatly among age groups, including among those under 70. In another analysis of antibody studies that has yet to be peer-reviewed or published in a journal, Dartmouth College researchers estimate infection fatality rate is higher than .04 percent for people over age 44, and “rises exponentially with age.”

“Our findings indicate that COVID-19 is not just dangerous for the elderly and infirm but also for healthy middle-aged adults, for whom the fatality rate is more than 50 times greater than the risk of dying in an automobile accident,” the Dartmouth researchers wrote.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, comparisons to seasonal flu have been an ongoing source of debate and confusion. Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, an epidemiologist at the University of Wollongong in Australia, told the AP, “For those over 35, the evidence suggests that COVID-19 is far deadlier than the flu.” He also said it is difficult for scientists to make a true comparison because of differences in available data for the two viruses.

To date, there have been more than 166,000 COVID-19 deaths in the United States compared to estimates of up to 62,000 flu deaths last flu season, according to CDC numbers.

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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