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What’s the truth about Omicron?

What’s the truth about Omicron?

Just two weeks ago, South African scientists announced they’d detected a new, highly mutated variant of Covid-19. Since then, the variant known as Omicron has been found in more than 60 countries, with cases rising fast across Europe, Africa and the USA. With little...

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Are Covid-19 vaccines safe for pregnant women?

Are Covid-19 vaccines safe for pregnant women?

It’s almost a year since the first Covid-19 vaccine was delivered to a patient outside of a clinical trial. Since then, billions of people have been injected around the world, protecting communities from the disease and giving scientists a wealth of data on their...

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How many people really recover from Covid-19?

How many people really recover from Covid-19?

Conspiracy theorists have long argued that Covid-19 kills less than 1% of people who catch it. They say this low figure means protective measures like lockdowns, social distancing and even vaccines aren’t needed.

But when you look a little deeper, their argument just doesn’t stack up. That’s because the rate of death from Covid-19 isn’t fixed at 1%, or any other number. It’s a constantly changing figure that varies from country to country and even from week to week.

What’s more, many of those who survive Covid-19 continue to experience sometimes debilitating symptoms months after infection.

So what do we actually know about recovery from Covid-19?

 

How many people die from Covid-19?

 

There are lots of ways to estimate how many people have died from Covid-19, but every method has its limitations.

One of the main problems for epidemiologists is a lack of testing, particularly early on in the pandemic. Researchers don’t know exactly how many people have been infected with the disease, or how many people have actually died from it.

That means any mortality rates based on these figures alone won’t be all that reliable. But even the most basic sum gives a higher rate than the 1% claimed by many social media users.

As of January 13th, the World Health Organization had recorded 315,345,967 confirmed Covid-19 infections and 5,510,174 deaths. This gives a mortality rate of 1.7% — nearly twice the figure quoted online.

But not only is this estimate unreliable, it’s also too basic a calculation to account for many of the factors that impact how many people die from Covid-19. For one, it fails to reflect the variation seen in rates of death over the course of the pandemic.

Many factors, including the changing pressures facing hospital systems, the emergence of new variants and the increasing rates of vaccination in many countries aren’t reflected in this mortality estimate.

As the pandemic has waxed and waned in different countries over different periods of time, the mortality rate calculated from confirmed infections and deaths has changed dramatically. As you can see from the chart below, case fatality rates have shifted markedly as overall infection numbers have changed.

The fatality rate in India alone has varied from below 1% to more than 7% of people testing positive for Covid-19 between September 2020 and January 2022. Meanwhile in Germany, for example, case fatality rates jumped from less than 1% to nearly 6% over the course of just a few months from late 2020 to early 2021.

It’s hard to tease out exactly which variables are driving these changes, from different levels of testing to changing pressures on hospitals to emerging treatments and vaccinations. But what is clear from these data is that a fixed global mortality figure isn’t particularly useful — or reliable — when it comes to understanding the impact of Covid-19. Social media posts that tout such figures can’t be relied upon either.

 

 

Does everyone else recover?

 

Another problem with the 99% figure is that it doesn’t take into account the difference between “survival” and “recovery”. Although the vast majority of people who contract Covid-19 see their symptoms fade within days, some people still experience symptoms many months after infection.

Like early disease symptoms, these can vary from the mild (changes to taste and smell) to the debilitating (extreme exhaustion). And they can affect people of any age.

Like other Covid-19 data, it’s still uncertain how many people experience symptoms long after their initial infection. This is partly because of a lack of reliable information. It may also be the case that rates and experiences of long covid vary from population to population depending on factors like age.

But we do have some data on the condition from countries like the U.K., where statisticians have been tracing the phenomena for months.

Researchers estimate that, in early December, about 2% of the U.K. population — roughly 1.3 million people —  were experiencing symptoms at least four weeks after Covid-19 infection. Of these, about 890,000 were thought to have had symptoms for at least 12 weeks. More than 500,000 were thought to have caught Covid-19 more than a year ago.

Statisticians extrapolated these results from a survey of more than 350,000 people who’d been infected over the course of the pandemic so far.

The severity and length of their symptoms varied, but nearly 64 percent of those who reported long covid symptoms said it adversely affected their day-to-day lives. Roughly a fifth said it limited their ability to perform normal activities “a lot”.

Long covid was most commonly experienced by people aged 35-69, and tended to affect more women than men. Like severe Covid-19, it was also more common in people with underlying conditions, as well as those living in more deprived conditions.

While this information offers some insight into the prevalence of long covid in the U.K., it can’t simply be applied to other countries with different populations. Globally, the impact of long covid will be far harder to measure. But what’s certain is that many people do not recover quickly from Covid-19. Some continue to experience severe symptoms months and even years after infection.

 

Vaccination dramatically reduces the risk of death

 

Although we may not know exactly how many people die of Covid-19, nor how many experience long-term symptoms, certain preventative measures have been proven to limit the risks from the disease.

Actions like mask-wearing, improving ventilation and physical distancing can help prevent the spread of Covid-19. As cases of the highly-contagious omicron variant increase, these steps are more important than ever. They may stop you contracting the disease — and spreading it — altogether.

Perhaps the most powerful way to protect yourself is by taking a Covid-19 vaccination when offered. Not only can the shots significantly reduce the chance of developing severe symptoms if you catch the disease, but scientific evidence shows they dramatically reduce the risk of dying from Covid-19. Although research into the omicron variant is still emerging, scientists believe vaccines will still offer good protection against severe disease and death, even if they aren’t as good at slowing transmission.

 

Feature image credit: Davian Ho for the Innovative Genomics Institute.

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