The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said Tuesday that coronavirus, formally known as COVID-19, may spread less efficiently than the seasonal flu, but that it's deadlier and more severe.
At a press briefing from the international organization's headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made a point of explaining the "important differences" between the new virus currently breaking out across the globe and other diseases like influenza.
"This virus is not SARS, it's not MERS, and it's not influenza. It is a unique virus with unique characteristics," Tedros said at the briefing.
While the coronavirus and the flu both spread the same way, which is by "small droplets of fluid from the nose and mouth of someone who is sick," the director-general explained, "there are some important differences between COVID-19 and influenza."
First among those differences Tedros listed is how easily the diseases spread, with coronavirus transmitting less efficiently.
"With influenza, people who are infected but not yet sick are major drivers of transmission, which does not appear to be the case for COVID-19," Tedros explained.
However, while it may not spread as efficiently, COVID-19 is deadlier and "more severe" than influenza once contracted.
"While many people globally have built up immunity to seasonal flu strains, COVID-19 is a new virus to which no one has immunity; that means more people are susceptible to infection, and some will suffer severe disease," Tedros explained. "Globally, about 3.4 percent of reported COVID-19 cases have died; by comparison, seasonal flu generally kills far fewer than 1 percent of those infected."
Another key difference between the diseases is that we have medicines and remedies to combat one, but not the other.
"We have vaccines and therapeutics for seasonal flu, but at the moment there is no vaccine and no specific treatment for COVID-19," Tedros said. "However, clinical trials of therapeutics are now being done, and more than 20 vaccines are in development," he added.
But the director-general also noted that containing the spread of COVID-19 is possible, while "we don't even talk about containment for seasonal flu."
In summary, Tedros said that the differences he listed are why "we can't treat COVID-19 exactly the same way we treat flu" but added that "there are enough similarities to mean that countries are not starting from scratch" in how they address it.
During the briefing, Tedros also went on to decry "rising demand, hoarding, and misuse," which are leading to a shortage of medical supplies and hampering countries' ability to respond to the outbreak.
"Shortages are leaving doctors, nurses, and other frontline health workers dangerously ill-equipped to care for COVID-19 patients, due to limited access to supplies such as gloves, medical masks, respirators, goggles, face shields, gowns, and aprons," Tedros explained. He also said that the organization had sent medical gear to 27 countries, but that "supplies are rapidly depleting."
The coronavirus and flu comparison was prominent during the earlier stages of the outbreak, when several doctors and medical experts warned that influenza was a far greater threat to Americans' health than COVID-19.
That COVID-19 is more deadly than the flu was also pointed out in analysis reported by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention last month, which reported a 2.3 percent mortality rate.
As of Tuesday, COVID-19 had infected over 92,000 people and killed over 3,100 worldwide, according to the Associated Press. The vast majority of those cases and deaths have been in China, where the disease originated.