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Détecteur de rumeurs

No, this video can not compare COVID-19 to the flu

Les articles du Détecteur de rumeurs sont rédigés par des journalistes
scientifiques de l'Agence Science-Presse. Les Fonds de recherche du Québec et
le Bureau de coopération interuniversitaire sont partenaires du Détecteur de rumeurs.

Auteur : Agence Science Presse - Pascal Lapointe

COVID-19 is no worse than the flu? You might have believed this question was set-tled weeks ago. But a video attacking an American expert on epidemics has put it back in the public eye. The video has been shared over 300,000 times. Here’s the Rumour Detector review of the video.

The author of the 7-minute video is an American “vlogger”. Using the pseudonym HighImpactVlogs, he describes himself as a “commentator” who “questions the man in the street”. The video attacks an article co-written by immunologist Anthony Fauci, published March 26 in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).

Dr. Anthony Fauci is the Director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases. For the past several weeks, he has been part of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Dr. Fauci has often appeared on the podium next to Donald Trump, but has often contradicted him. This has made Dr. Fauci a prime target for some American right wingers. He has received threats.

The NEJM article is an opinion piece (an “editorial”). It reviews the recent estimates on the fatality rate. Dr. Fauci and two colleagues write that this coronavirus could have consequences “more akin to those of a severe seasonal influenza (which has a case fatality rate of approximately 0.1%)”. The vlogger repeatedly insists on this number: a rate similar to the seasonal flu. “They’re shutting down a country for that!” he exclaims, displaying the passage in close-up on the screen.

But he ignores the rest of the sentence: “…or a pandemic influenza (similar to those in 1957 and 1968)”. The 1957 pandemic left 116,000 dead in the United States alone. At that time the U.S. population was twice as small as it is today. A total of a million people died around the world.

Check the contagion rate, not the fatality rate
The fatality rate isn’t the only factor to consider when assessing the risk posed by a virus. First you have to look at the contagion rate or “reproduction rate”. The ex-perts call this the R0 factor. For now, the coronavirus estimates vary from country to country. All the data is still fragmentary, but rates fluctuate between 2 and 2.5 persons. That means each person infected by the coronavirus could infect between 2 and 3 others, unless there are containment measures.

This isn’t as bad as measles, which has a contagion rate of 12. But it’s worse than the rate of 1 for the seasonal flu. By comparison, the World Health Organization estimates a 2.2 contagion rate for the 1918 Spanish flu.

The video was posted online on March 31. It was viewed over 350,000 times during its first week of release. In the meantime, during the same week, the daily number of coronavirus deaths in the United States reached levels that had never been seen in any other country. The projections currently show a total number of deaths that could reach 100,000 this summer.

No, COVID-19 isn’t “just a flu”.

The Rumour Detector’s tips on YouTube

  • If the man talking to you describes himself as an activist, or a “commentator” or someone who “rocks the boat”, that’s fine for him. But you can’t rely on him to decide whether information is valid.
  • If he quotes part of a sentence, ask yourself why he left out the rest.
  • What if he mentions a number? Remember that any coronavirus statistics will have to be treated cautiously for several more months. (See the Rumour Detector’s tips on epidemic statistics).

It took the Rumour Detector less than a minute to find basic information on the 1957 and 1968 pandemics.