6 Main Differences between the Flu and Coronavirus

Earlier this month, on March 6, 2020, The World Health Organization released a situation report which also highlighted the similarities and differences between influenza (the Flu) and the novel corona virus (COVID-19).

Similarities between COVID-19 and the Flu

Experts say the both COVID-19 and the influenza viruses have a similar disease presentation, they are both respiratory diseases which presents a wide range of illnesses from mild through to severe. Secondly, WHO states that both viruses are transmitted by contact, droplets, and fomites (objects or materials which are likely to carry the infection).

As a result, the same public health measures such as practicing good hand hygiene and good respiratory etiquettes (coughing into your elbow or a tissue etc.) are important actions to take to prevent either infections.

Differences between COVID-19 and the Flu

Speed of Transmission

  • Influenza has a shorter median incubation period, or the time it takes for symptoms of the infection to appear
  • Influenza also has a shorter serial interval (3 days), the time between successive cases, compared to the COVID-19 virus (5-6 days)
  • What this means is that the Flu can spread much faster than COVID-19

The Reproductive Number

  • The reproductive number, the number of secondary infections from one infected individual, is stated to be between 2 and 2.5 for the COVID-19 virus, higher than for influenza
  • However, estimates for both viruses depends on the context and time which makes comparing the two more difficult

Children are not to blame for spreading the COVID-19 virus

  • During the flu season, it is generally said that children are important drivers of the influenza virus transmission in the community
  • However, initial data suggests that children are less affected than adults and clinical attack rates in the 0-19 age groups are low for the COVID-19 virus

COVID-19 is more severe than the Influenza virus

  • Despite the similarities in symptoms for both viruses, the fraction of severe and critical infection appears to be higher than what is observed for the flu virus
  • Data suggests that for COVID-19: 80% of infections are mild, 15% are severe requiring oxygen, and 5% are critical infections requiring ventilation

Differences between the most-at-risk demographic for the viruses

  • For the flu the most at risk are children, pregnant women, the elderly, those with underlying chronic medical conditions and those who are immunosuppressed (have weaker immune systems)
  • For COVID-19, based upon current data, children, the elderly and those with underlying conditions are most at risk for more severe infections

COVID-19 is deadlier than the Influenza

  • While the true mortality rate of COVID-19 will take time to understand, the current data suggests the mortality ratio is between 3-4%
    • The ratio is the number of reported deaths divided by the number of reported cases
  • On the other hand, for seasonal influenza (the flu) the mortality rate is well below 0.1%
  • It is important to understand the mortality rates also depends on the level of access to and the quality of health care

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