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The WHO said that it never said that COVID-19 is no more dangerous than the flu.
Infection fatality rates — or probability of death for a person who is infected — vary depending upon the age of the population, access to healthcare, vaccination, and other factors.
Scientific estimates of the COVID-19 infection fatality rate vary depending on available data, and have come in at 0.66%, 0.15%, and other values.
The infection fatality rate for seasonal flu is about 0.1%, with some fluctuations.
Reiner Fuellmich, a German lawyer who has spread misinformation about the origins of COVID-19 and the accuracy of PCR tests, is in a video shared on Facebook in which he downplays the severity of the coronavirus.
Fuellmich claimed that the World Health Organization has said that COVID-19 is no more dangerous than the flu.
"Even the WHO has conceded that the virus, regardless of whether it is fully or semi-artificial or natural, is no more dangerous than the common flu, with an infection fatality rate of 0.14%," he said in the video posted Dec. 30.
The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
The World Health Organization said in an emailed statement that it never said that COVID-19 is no more dangerous than the common flu.
The WHO said that it does not have a single global estimate for the infection fatality ratio of COVID-19, but that previous studies have estimated it at around 0.6%. Seasonal influenza has an infection fatality ratio of about 0.1%, subject to fluctuations. That’s about six times lower than the figure WHO pointed us to.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published in April that the infection fatality rate for COVID-19 in the U.S. is 0.7%. The CDC included the figure in a report on the findings of an outside peer-reviewed study. The study had taken that figure from a meta-analysis of other studies, published in September 2020.
The infection fatality rate for the flu is much lower. In one particularly bad season, the IFR for symptomatic influenza A was .126%, according to a CDC report of deaths from the 2017-2018 flu season. That season was atypical, with more cases of severe flu for all ages. In the 2019-2020 season, the IFR for symptomatic cases was .058%.
The COVID-19 infection fatality ratio, which estimates the proportion of deaths among all infected individuals, has varied widely across studies, as scientists use different data sources to evaluate how different populations are affected by the virus. The ratio also varies significantly by age, increasing in age groups above 60 years old, by underlying conditions, and by socioeconomic factors and ethnicity, the WHO said. To make these calculations, scientists use data on the presence of antibodies among different populations, also known as serological surveys.
"As data from serological surveys is compiled, this estimate will continue to evolve, including adjustments for new developments such as increasing numbers of people vaccinated," the WHO said in a statement emailed by a spokesperson. "Irrespective of the precise estimate, COVID-19 remains a dangerous and deadly infectious disease, claiming thousands of lives each day."
The WHO referred us to two studies to support its statement. A study in Nature from November 2020 estimated that the COVID-19 infection rate ratio increased with age, ranging from .001% in children ages 5-9, to 8.29% in people age 80 and older. Authors said there are "key unanswered questions with regard to the consistency of mortality patterns across countries."
In a study in the Lancet, from June 2020, researchers estimated that the overall COVID-19 infection fatality ratio for China was 0.66%, which increased with age.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said overall infection fatality ratio for COVID-19 was around 0.6%, but it has fallen somewhat because of better treatments. However, that’s still higher than the seasonal flu which has been measured at around 0.1%.
"Irrespective of the IFR, seasonal flu doesn’t kill 800,000 Americans or crush hospitals the way COVID did," Adalja said.
In an overview of six prior studies, Dr. John P. A. Ioannidis of Stanford University found the infection fatality rate, which is the probability of dying for a person who is infected, to be around 0.15%, though he warned that it varies widely around the world.
An investigation into the Diamond Princess Cruise outbreak published in May 2020 found that the case fatality rate, or the number of deaths per confirmed cases, was 0.5%, when adjusted for age. While warning that such assessments are premature, the authors in that study noted: "A case fatality rate of 0.5% would still be 5 times the commonly cited case fatality rate of adult seasonal influenza."
Dr. Thomas A. Russo, an infectious disease researcher at the University at Buffalo and a practicing physician, said that an undercounting of people infected with COVID-19 and an undercounting of deaths makes reliable data on deaths per infection difficult to come by. He estimates that the true infection mortality rate is between 0.4% and 0.8%. While flu is a lethal disease, Russo said, he thinks Fuellmich underestimates the risk from COVID-19.
"I think we can all agree, we never with influenza see the carnage that we’re seeing with COVID," Russo said.
We reached out to Fuellmich for evidence to support his claims but did not hear back.
Other fact-checkers have also looked into these claims.
Correctiv, which is based in Germany and is a member of the International Fact-Checking Network, found in October 2020 that the WHO did not confirm that COVID-19 is less bad than the flu. The WHO told Correctiv that flu deaths vary every year, but that it estimated the infectious mortality rate for seasonal flu to be below 0.1%, which means the severity of the flu is "much lower" than of COVID-19.
In October 2020, Health Feedback found that this claim was based on a misinterpretation of a WHO estimate, and is inaccurate.
PolitiFact found in October 2020 that by one estimate, COVID-19 is about 10 times more deadly than the seasonal flu.
Fuellmich said that the WHO has said that COVID-19 is no worse than the flu, and that the infection fatality rate is 0.14%.
In a statement to PolitiFact, the WHO said that it never said that COVID-19 is no worse than the flu. Estimates of the infection fatality ratio vary widely, and the WHO said prior estimates are 0.6% — far higher than the 0.14% Fuellmich claimed. The CDC in April published findings from a paper showing that the infection fatality rate for COVID-19 in the U.S. is 0.7%.
We found other estimates for the infection fatality ratio and rate to vary, and we noted one as low as 0.15%. But scientists warn that the infection fatality rate can be influenced by the availability of testing, the age of the population, socioeconomic conditions, and other factors.
Fuellmich was incorrect about the WHO making a favorable comparison between the coronavirus and the flu, and his infection fatality rate estimate was lower than those in many published studies.
His statement suggests a level of certitude that the WHO has never conceded. We rate this claim False.
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AFP Fact Check, "Coronavirus was not staged by philanthropists to control people," June 17, 2021. Accessed Jan. 11, 2022.
Health Feedback, "PCR tests are reliable to detect and monitor COVID-19 infections, which are real and have caused millions of deaths worldwide," June 10, 2021. Accessed Jan. 11, 2022.
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PolitiFact, "Are you more likely to die from the flu than coronavirus? It’s complicated," March 10, 2020. Accessed Jan. 14. 2022.
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U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "COVID-19 Science Update released: April 9, 2021 Edition 84." Accessed Jan. 18, 2022.
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