But the most straightforward and compelling evidence that the true case fatality rate of SARS-CoV-2 is well under 1 percent comes not from statistical trends and methodological massage, but from data from the Diamond Princess cruise outbreak and subsequent quarantine off the coast of Japan.
A quarantined boat is an ideal—if unfortunate—natural laboratory to study a virus. Many variables normally impossible to control are controlled. We know that all but one patient boarded the boat without the virus. We know that the other passengers were healthy enough to travel. We know their whereabouts and exposures. While the numbers coming out of China are scary, we don’t know how many of those patients were already ill for other reasons. How many were already hospitalized for another life-threatening illness and then caught the virus? How many were completely healthy, caught the virus, and developed a critical illness? In the real world, we just don’t know.
Here’s the problem with looking at mortality numbers in a general setting: In China, 9 million people die per year, which comes out to 25,000 people every single day, or around 1.5 million people over the past two months alone. A significant fraction of these deaths results from diseases like emphysema/COPD, lower respiratory infections, and cancers of the lung and airway whose symptoms are clinically indistinguishable from the nonspecific symptoms seen in severe COVID-19 cases. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the death rate from COVID-19 in China spiked precisely among the same age groups in which these chronic diseases first become common. During the peak of the outbreak in China in January and early February, around 25 patients per day were dying with SARS-CoV-2. Most were older patients in whom the chronic diseases listed above are prevalent. Most deaths occurred in Hubei province, an area in which lung cancer and emphysema/COPD are significantly higher than national averages in China, a country where half of all men smoke. How were doctors supposed to sort out which of those 25 out of 25,000 daily deaths were solely due to coronavirus, and which were more complicated? What we need to know is how many excess deaths this virus causes.
This is where the Diamond Princess data provides important insight. Of the 3,711 people on board, at least 705 have tested positive for the virus (which, considering the confines, conditions, and how contagious this virus appears to be, is surprisingly low). Of those, more than half are asymptomatic, while very few asymptomatic people were detected in China. This alone suggests a halving of the virus’s true fatality rate.
On the Diamond Princess, six deaths have occurred among the passengers, constituting a case fatality rate of 0.85 percent. Unlike the data from China and elsewhere, where sorting out why a patient died is extremely difficult, we can assume that these are excess fatalities—they wouldn’t have occurred but for SARS-CoV-2. The most important insight is that all six fatalities occurred in patients who are more than 70 years old. Not a single Diamond Princess patient under age 70 has died. If the numbers from reports out of China had held, the expected number of deaths in those under 70 should have been around four.
The data from the Diamond Princess suggest an eightfold lower mortality amongst patients older than 70 and threefold lower mortality in patients over 80 compared to what was reported in China initially. But even those numbers, 1.1 percent and 4.9 percent respectively, are concerning. But there’s another thing that’s worth remembering: These patients were likely exposed repeatedly to concentrated viral loads (which can cause worse illness). Some treatments were delayed. So even the lower CFR found on the Diamond Princess could have been even lower, with proper protocols. It’s also worth noting that while cruise passengers can be assumed to be healthy enough to travel, they actually tend to reflect the general population, and many patients with chronic illnesses go on cruises. So, the numbers from this ship may be reasonable estimates.
This all suggests that COVID-19 is a relatively benign disease for most young people, and a potentially devastating one for the old and chronically ill, albeit not nearly as risky as reported. Given the low mortality rate among younger patients with coronavirus—zero in children 10 or younger among hundreds of cases in China, and 0.2-0.4 percent in most healthy nongeriatric adults (and this is still before accounting for what is likely to be a high number of undetected asymptomatic cases)—we need to divert our focus away from worrying about preventing systemic spread among healthy people—which is likely either inevitable, or out of our control—and commit most if not all of our resources toward protecting those truly at risk of developing critical illness and even death: everyone over 70, and people who are already at higher risk from this kind of virus.
This still largely comes down to hygiene and isolation. But in particular, we need to focus on the right people and the right places. Nursing homes, not schools. Hospitals, not planes. We need to up the hygienic and isolation ante primarily around the subset of people who can’t simply contract SARS-CoV-2 and ride it out the way healthy people should be able to.