Coronavirus made simple

The coronavirus (named COVID-19) has come to the US, and is expected to continue to spread its way across cites, towns and countryside. With that, we should be prepared not panicked; informed not misled.

We’ve sifted through news, epidemiological studies, and CDC documents. We’ve talked to doctors. Pharmacists. And we’re going to keep things very simple.

coronaviruses we already know

SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) and 4 coronaviruses that cause the common cold are known to us.

COVID-19 is new.

Once a person is infected, the virus may cause a fever and/or a cough; or it may attach deep in the lungs and cause pneumonia.

death rate

COVID-19 has a death rate of about 3.4%. This is a much lower death rate than SARS (kills 10% of infected) or MERS (kills 30% of infected), but a much higher death rate than the seasonal flu, which is about 0.1%.

Seasonal flu can be so widespread, and infect so many people, the number of deaths per year is higher than we’ve seen with COVID-19. As COVID-19 spreads, however, the number of people it kills may (far?) exceed the number of people the flu kills (it’s less contagious than the flu but more lethal).

Deaths will be mostly among elderly: people in their 80’s will be affected most, then 70’s, and then 60’s.

However, younger doctors have died, maybe from a huge dose of the virus.

mathematical model: how many people will get COVID-19

Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at Harvard University, predicts that between 40-70% of adults worldwide will become infected.

limitations on mathematical model

The numbers used to create the model are based on information coming from China, which may be incomplete, inaccurate or perhaps even perfect–we just don’t know yet.

The math can be affected by a number of variables as well. Check out the debate on how wrong (or right) the mathematical projections for the virus may be.

COVID-19 is very transmissible: how it spreads

COVID-19 is concerning because it spreads much more readily than SARS or MERS (they have higher death rates but don’t spread as quickly).

COVID-19 is transmitted mostly by coughing, but also by touching surfaces that are contaminated. For example: An infected person coughs on a desk, someone else comes along and touches the desk and then touches his or her own mouth or eye or nose–and the infection is spread.


Children are not likely to get it, maybe because they’re exposed to common colds so often.

how to prepare; how to think about COVID-19

Go to reputable sources for information, like this CDC site or this Department of Homeland Security site.

Check out a podcast by Noah Feldman in which the Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch is interviewed.

Among the guidelines from the CDC:

  • Wash hands.
  • Don’t touch your face.
  • No need for a mask if you’re healthy (a virus is too small to be filtered by a “regular” mask).
  • Stock up on essential medicine, in case of a supply chain problem.

Geek out on the CDC’s pandemic readiness page.

Epidemiologists have predicted between 40-70% of the population could be infected with COVID-19. But, these numbers could change, depending on many factors. For example: Are we willing to quarantine ourselves? Check out a simple breakdown of the variables that could make the disease spread more or less than predicted.

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