How Deadly Is The New Coronavirus? China Offers Some Intriguing Clues : Goats and Soda And what that means for the rest of the world. Researchers have found three likely reasons for the drop in the fatality rate.

Why The Death Rate From Coronavirus Is Plunging In China

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


There are now nearly a hundred cases of coronavirus in the U.S., a number that is expected to grow. Scientists are still trying to pin down the answer to a key question - how deadly is this virus? While estimates have varied, evidence does suggest that the fatality rate in the U.S. will be lower than what we're seeing in China. NPR's Nurith Aizenman explains.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: At a recent news conference in Beijing, a top Chinese health official, Liang Wannian, said the fatality rate for COVID-19 was high.


LIANG WANNIAN: (Non-English language spoken).

AIZENMAN: "Three to 4% of patients of have died."

But then, Liang added a twist.


LIANG: (Non-English language spoken).

AIZENMAN: "Outside of Wuhan, the city at the epicenter of the outbreak," Liang said, "the death rate in China has been much lower - about 0.7%."

Why such a big difference between Wuhan and the rest of China? At a later news conference, Dr. Bruce Aylward, who just concluded a fact-finding mission to China for the World Health Organization, pointed to three likely factors. No. 1...


BRUCE AYLWARD: You know, Wuhan started fast and early. People didn't - we didn't know what we were dealing with. We were learning how to treat this.

AIZENMAN: The more patients they saw, the more medical staff could start identifying what types of care made a difference - which means by the time patients started showing up in hospitals in other provinces, doctors and nurses there had a lot more information about what it takes to keep patients alive. Hospitals in the rest of the world will likely also benefit from that updated knowledge.


AYLWARD: The second thing was just the sheer scale of the numbers.

AIZENMAN: Aylward says hospitals in Wuhan were flooded with thousands of sick people, which stressed their capacity to provide the kind of round-the-clock intensive care a patient needs if they've got a severe or critical case of COVID-19. Elsewhere in China, the caseload was much lower. The implication for other countries - it's worth trying to at least slow the pace of an outbreak so as to keep the number of patients from overwhelming your hospitals.

The final factor...


AYLWARD: At the beginning of this outbreak, remember people were finding severe disease and that's why the alarm bells went off.

AIZENMAN: Those early severe cases made COVID-19 look like a much bigger killer. It was only after officials in China stepped up surveillance that they started uncovering many more mild cases. And that's a pattern we're likely to see in other countries, too. In other words, there's a good chance the fatality rate in nations with good health systems will be lower than what we first saw in China. Still, it's worth noting that even once China got the death rate down to 0.7%, that's still about seven times greater than the death rate for flu. Also, some of the data from China shows that for patients older than 70, the death rate triples.

Anna Yeung-Cheung is a microbiologist at Manhattanville College in New York. She even worries about health workers.

ANNA YEUNG-CHEUNG: For a health care worker, you would say, OK, they're young.

AIZENMAN: But Yeung-Cheung, who's originally from Hong Kong, notes that a lot of doctors there died during the SARS coronavirus outbreak of 2002-2003. And hundreds of Chinese health workers came down with COVID-19, possibly, at least in part, because they were working so hard.

YEUNG-CHEUNG: We need to take into account the stress that they're undergoing. This is stress to their body.

AIZENMAN: One more reason for other countries to do what they can to keep this disease contained.

Nurith Aizenman, NPR News.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.