Dr Richard Hatchett, a doctor leading the efforts for a potential vaccine for COVID-19, took some time away from his research yesterday to appear on Channel 4 news and remind viewers of the dangers of the novel coronavirus.
When asked about his potential vested interest in "making people fearful" in order to receive investment for his research, he said:
It's the most frightening disease I've ever encountered in my career, and that includes Ebola, it includes MERS, it includes SARS. And it's frightening because of the combination of infectiousness and a lethality that appears to be manyfold higher than flu.
According to the World Health Organization, the flu's mortaility rate is below 1 per cent, while COVID-19 has killed 3.4 per cent of reported cases so far. However, estimates suggest there could be many more people who have been infected with the virus, but have had symptoms so mild that they have not been tested, meaning the mortality rate could be much lower.
Hatchett also compared the outbreak to the Spanish flu, which emerged in 1918 and estimated to have killed around 50 million people globally over two years.
We have not since 1918 seen a virus that combined those two qualities in the same way. We have seen very lethal viruses [...] but they don't have the infectiousness that this virus has. They don't have the potential to explode and spread globally.
So far, there have been 3,524 deaths since the first case was discovered in December 2019. This would average at around 1,175 deaths per month, which would mean 14,100 per year.
Of course, as the virus spreads, rate of infection and therefore mortality would likely increase, but it's still a long way off 50 million, especially considering the huge increase in scientific understanding of pandemics, vaccination and treatments which have been developed in the past 100 years.
The clip of the interview was tweeted by Channel 4, and has since gone viral given the gravity implied in this statement, which stands in somewhat stark contrast to the official statement from the UK's chief medical officers, which places the UK risk level at "moderate", while stressing that:
It is likely there will be individual cases and we are confident in the ability of the NHS in England, Scotland and Wales and HSC in Northern Ireland to manage these in a way that protects the public and provides high quality care.
Many have criticised the nature of Hatchett's comments, calling them "scaremongering", "unhelpful" and "sensationalism".
While it's crucial we take this virus seriously to avoid further spread, we must also avoid causing global panic, which we are already seeing as people panic-buy and stockpile, with dangerous consequences to the most vulnerable.
If you think you may have been infected with COVID-19, please follow NHS guidelines.