The curious downgrading of the 1918 Spanish Flu case fatality rate, which I looked into March 9, has taken an interesting new turn today, with the Guardian publishing this piece, by science journalist Laura Spinney
which uses this anomalous lower figure (2.5%) to imply that COVID19 may prove more dangerous than the Spanish Flu:
Last week the WHO provisionally quoted a CFR of 3.4% [for COVID19], which would be alarming if it were correct. The CFR of the 1918 flu is still being debated… but the number usually quoted is 2.5%…
Elsewhere, however she also describes the 1918 Spanish Flu as:
That global human catastrophe, which killed between 50 million and 100 million people…
This is curious for a couple of reasons:
- Because the Spanish Flu CFR ‘number usually quoted’ is NOT 2.5% It’s 10-20%. Or 50-100 million deaths from 500 million cases.
- Because Spinney herself has pointed out in her book, Pale Rider:the Spanish Flu of 1918 & How it Changed the World, that this lower CFR (2.5%) is irreconcilable with the commonly accepted numbers of dead:
Indeed, as I showed in my previous article, those two figures – a death-rate of 50-100 million and a CFR of 2.5% can’t co-exist. They are mutually exclusive. For 50 million to be 2.5% of all cases there would have to have been 2 billion cases. If 100 million is 2.5% of all cases then there would have to have been 4 billion cases. Even the lower figure is greater than the entire population of the world at that time. It’s an obvious error.
But how did it come about? And why is this anomalous 2.5% figure seeing a resurgence of use in very recent days?
A recent Twitter thread by Ferres Jabr, a science writer for the NYT magazine, does a lot to expose how the two twisted and irreconcilable stats – 50-100 million dead and a CFR of 2.5% originally came about. I urge you all to read this entire thing, it’s excellent (the thread is also available in PDF form here, just in case it gets memory holed):
Many people are claiming that the new coronavirus is as deadly as the 1918 Spanish flu, citing a case fatality rate (CFR) of ~2.5%
The truth is that this comparison is, at best, highly unreliable, and may be completely wrong. Here's why:
— Ferris Jabr (@ferrisjabr) February 24, 2020
To sum up its findings. The number of Spanish Flu cases worldwide has long been estimated at around 500 million, and this estimate has not changed. However the number of estimated deaths has changed quite dramatically in recent times, and this is the source of the error.
Back in the 1970s the total number of deaths was estimated at around 20 million, due to a failure to assimilate many cases from the non-Western world. The CFR of 2.5% it estimated was a little low but broadly inline with its other figure.
But in 2002 a new study corrected the lacuna in non-Western cases and produced the estimate of worldwide deaths we are familiar with now – 50-100 million. This meant the CFR was no longer 2.5% but now 10-20% of total estimated cases.
Then a later study, from 2006, used these updated fatality figures, but omitted to update the CFR, citing it as still 2.5%. Which meant it was offering the impossible and contradictory number recently adopted by Wikipedia.
Obviously this was a simple error, and it has been pointed out several times in the intervening years (see for example here). But, as the recently ‘corrected’ Wikipedia article shows, it’s proving a very fortuitous error right now for those wanting to instil very high amounts of public fear.
Pretty obviously this innocent error is being exploited as part of a very cynical bid by some entities, including the Wikipedia editors, to make the current coronavirus scare seem, well, scarier. The 1918 flu pandemic is embedded in the collective mind as an exemplar of a terrifying outbreak. If the stats can be manipulated to allow people to claim its CFR was actually lower than COVID19 – well that’s some valuable fear porn for use in articles and headlines, and by sock puppets BTL trying to create memes.
To that end, the current confusion is a bit of a Godsend.
Spinney’s article illustrates this very well. Spinney is well aware of the ‘2.5% anomaly’ as she herself has drawn attention to it, but no reference to it appears anywhere in this piece. And, while her article stops short of actually claiming COVID19 is going to be bigger than the Spanish Flu, the opening paras – which will be the most read of course – certainly leave that possibility more than open, where they directly compare the alleged CFR of the current coronavirus (3.4%) with the 2.5% figure for Spanish Flu – which she knows to be erroneous.
This is cynically providing a nice easy and totally misleading quote for anyone who wants to claim COVID19 is measurably more dangerous than the Spanish Flu, while stopping short of actually making the claim.
Spinney ought, at very least, to have added her own rider from her own book to this Guardian article, and made it perfectly clear that the ‘commonly accepted’ Spanish Flu CFR of 2.5% is not just wrong, but impossible.
The fact she chose not to, or was possibly deterred from doing so by her editor, is not just revealing of agenda, it’s actually shameful and irresponsible to a very high degree.
The UK government has asked people to report any sources of misleading information on COVID19. This Guardian article is clearly one such, but I highly doubt it is the kind of ‘misinformation’ they want to be apprised of.
next time I really will be discussing the PCR tests, and the weird story of the ‘unreliable’ kits being shipped out by the CDC, as promised