COTW: Putting the Wuhan Coronavirus in Perspective

February 4, 2020

In the initial weeks after the news of the Wuhan coronavirus (2019-nCov) outbreak, exponential growth in reported cases coupled with spotty data suggested an extremely contagious pathogen with a high case fatality rate. Early estimates had the transmission rate (R-0) at 3.8 new cases for every infected person and a fatality rate of over 3%. Combined with a relatively long incubation period, asymptomatic transmission and the timing of the outbreak with the largest human migration event of the year (Chinese New Year), the growth trajectory of the outbreak looked ominous.


These early estimates suggested over 14 million cases within a matter of weeks and over 500,000 implied deaths. In recent days, however, the growth in new cases and fatality rates both appear to have dropped dramatically, especially outside of Hubei province (Wuhan is the capital of and largest city in Hubei). These two variables are plotted below for several well-known pathogens along with the number of deaths either annually or from the last major outbreak (represented by the size of the bubble).


Acknowledging the challenges in calculating fatality rates without an accurate read on how many people are infected, the news seems very positive. To put this data in perspective, if the R-0 drops to 2.0 and the fatality rate from 3% to 2%, the total number of fatalities at the end of the forecast period drops by over 90%, from over 500,000 to under 40,000. These two scenarios are represented by the two red circles.


The chart below can be downloaded here.



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