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FactCheck: No, the WHO's Dr Mike Ryan didn't say that Covid-19 is 'no more dangerous' than the flu

A number of different posts on Facebook with the same text have claimed that the assertion was made at a WHO briefing.

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THERE ARE SEVERAL social media posts being shared widely in Ireland that cite a World Health Organization (WHO) briefing as evidence that Covid-19 is “no more deadly or dangerous” than the seasonal flu when the death rates are compared. 

This FactCheck examines the claim to see if it was true: this includes looking at who made the claim, what exactly was said at the WHO briefing, and an analysis of the mortality rates of both SARS-CoV-2 and the seasonal flu.

The Claim

This screenshot was shared by a Facebook page called Yellow Vest Ireland in October, and has amassed over 1,000 shares, and 700 reactions. 

WHO inadvertently Source: Facebook

The website from which the screenshot was taken was also shared on this Facebook page.

The original author of the article is Kit Knightly from Off Guardian, a site that claims it was set up by authors “banned or censored” from The Guardian’s comment section.

This article has since been syndicated or copy and pasted onto other websites, including the one in the screengrab shared on the Yellow Vest Ireland Facebook page. 

The piece, published on 8 October, cites a number of figures to reach the conclusion that Covid-19 is no more dangerous than the flu, focusing in particular on the infection fatality rate.

The first sentence reads: “The World Health Organization has finally confirmed what we (and many experts and studies) have been saying for months – the coronavirus is no more deadly or dangerous than seasonal flu.”

The article says: 

  • That the WHO believes roughly 10% of the world has been infected with SARS-CoV-2, based on seroprevalence studies (which measure how many people in a population have antibodies to an illness) 
  • That this is “good news” and that SARS-CoV-2 is “nothing like as deadly as everyone predicted”
  • That the global population is roughly 7.8 billion people, and if 10% have been infected that is 780 million Covid-19 cases
  • The global death toll currently attributed to SARS-CoV-2 infections is 1,061,539. The writer concludes that the death rate from Covid-19 is 0.14%

He notes that this death rate is significantly lower than the one initially mooted by the WHO in March, and says that the fatality rate could be even lower due to what he says is “the over-reporting of alleged Covid deaths”. He writes: 

0.14% is over 24 times LOWER than the WHO’s “provisional figure” of 3.4% back in March. This figure was used in the models which were used to justify lockdowns and other draconian policies.
In fact, given the over-reporting of alleged Covid deaths, the IFR [infection fatality rate] is likely even lower than 0.14%, and could show Covid to be much less dangerous than flu.

The writer says that this claim was confirmed by WHO’s ‘top brass’ during a session of its executive board in early October, noting, “It’s just nobody seemed to really understand [what they said]. In fact, they didn’t seem to completely understand it themselves.”

What was said by Dr Mike Ryan

At a WHO briefing on Monday 5 October, the speakers talked about the epidemiological situation of Covid-19 worldwide. The video of the briefing is here (click ‘Session 1′, and skip to 1.00.28-1.02.14 for the relevant section). 

We’ve transcribed part of it below where Dr Mike Ryan talked about an estimated 10% of the global population being infected with Covid-19, which was used to make the claims in the Kit Knightly article. 

It should be noted that Dr Ryan did not give figures for the fatality rate of Covid-19 during this part of the briefing, nor did he compare it to the flu. 

Dr Ryan, who is executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme and a public health specialist, said the following at that briefing:

“The impact in terms of cases per million… varies around the world, so when we look at raw numbers it’s difficult to really look at the impact per head of population. This map shows you the diversity of that impact around the world… 

Deaths world Source: WHO

“…and equally so in terms of deaths. Last week we reached the grim milestone of 1 million deaths reported from Covid-19. Every one of those lives lost is a tragedy.

“The global numbers belie significant differences as I said in regional epidemiology: South East Asia continues to see a surge in cases, with Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean regions showing an increase in cases and deaths. The situation in Africa and the Western Pacific is currently rather more positive.

Our current best estimates tell us that about 10% of the global population may have been infected by this virus. This varies depending on country, it varies from urban to rural, it varies between different groups.

A statement from the WHO

We asked the WHO to respond to the conclusions drawn from the statement. They sent back a statement that Dr Ryan gave earlier this month, where he expanded on his remarks at the press conference (link to full transcript here). 

He said that while it is difficult to estimate the fatality rates during an ongoing outbreak, studies have found that Covid has an infection fatality rate of around 0.6%, while seasonal flu has an infection fatality rate ‘much lower’ than 0.1%.

The claim being factchecked specifically referred to the infection fatality rate of Covid-19 as being 0.14%, which the author said was evidence that it could be much less dangerous than flu.  

Dr Ryan said: “Estimates of case fatality ratio (CFR) and infection fatality ratio (IFR) during an outbreak are often inaccurate. WHO has issued a scientific brief to help countries estimate these ratios as appropriately and accurately as possible, while accounting for possible biases.”

He explained the two ways that the infection fatality rate is calculated:

Typically, we look to serological studies [which check for antibodies] to estimate the infection fatality ratio. Mathematical models are also being used to estimate it. There are several studies looking at this and they are converging to an infection fatality rate of around 0.6%, which amounts to over 1 death per 200 people infected.
For seasonal influenza, the case fatality rate varies year by year and is about 0.1%. The infection fatality rate is expected to be much lower owing to many asymptomatic infections.

Case fatality ratio vs infection fatality ratio

Let’s have a look at the two terms used by Dr Mike Ryan to talk about the death rates. 

Case fatality ratio is the number of people who have died in proportion to the number of people who are confirmed by a laboratory test to have Covid-19.

Infection fatality ratio is the number of people who have died in proportion to the number of people who are estimated to have Covid-19, both tested and untested.

Put simply, the case fatality ratio is the number of people who have died as a percentage of the cases we are aware of, while the infection fatality ratio is the number of people who have died as a percentage of all cases – including the cases which we haven’t found or discovered through testing (such as mild or asymptomatic cases).

This explanation from the BBC puts it clearly:

Consider 100 people who have been infected with Covid-19. Ten of them have it so severely that they go into hospital, where they test positive for Covid-19. The other 90 are not tested at all. One of the hospital patients then dies from the virus. The other 99 people survive.
That would give a case fatality rate of one in 10, or 10%. But the infection fatality rate would be just one in 100, or 1%.

Based on global figures from 23 November provided by the Johns Hopkins University, the case fatality rate of Covid-19 across the world for that day was 2.4%. The Covid-19 case fatality rate for Ireland in the last available HPSC report was similar at 2.5%.

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The infection fatality rate is seen as a more useful way to measure how deadly a virus is, even though the case fatality rate is easier to measure, as focusing solely on counting deaths by looking at laboratory-confirmed cases isn’t giving the full picture. The infection fatality rate is also the measure that was used in the article that we’re factchecking here. 

Research has found that the Covid-19 infection fatality rate is between 0.5-1%, while the flu infection fatality rate is between 0.001% and 0.05%.

The infection fatality rate is estimated to be around 0.68% for Covid-19 by this meta-analysis from the International Journal of Infectious Diseases. The World Health Organization is broader, putting it at 0.5-1%.

The infection fatality rate for the seasonal flu is harder to capture – there is less data on the number of asymptomatic flu cases than there is for Covid-19 – but we do know that the case fatality rate is 0.13%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US, which means that the infection fatality rate is less than this

Additionally, the CDC estimates that up to half of flu cases could be asymptomatic, meaning if the CFR is ~0.1%, then the IFR could be ~0.05%.

Added to that, a 2014 peer-reviewed study found that 1-10 people died per 100,000 people with flu infections. This would give it an IFR of 0.001-0.01%.

To put numbers on it, the flu kills between 290,000 to 650,000 people globally every year, with an average of 389,000 per year. In comparison, more than 1.4 million people have died since the World Health Organization declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic in March of this year. 

The author cites “over-reporting of alleged Covid deaths” to argue that the infection fatality rate could be lower than reported, but doesn’t cite specific figures and only links to an opinion piece of his own about how the UK records Covid-19 deaths. 

The Verdict

The WHO did not claim, inadvertently or on purpose, that Covid-19 is no more dangerous than the flu. 

That interpretation was made by the writer of the original claim, who used his own figures to estimate the infection fatality rate of Covid as being 0.14%, (and noted that it’s “likely even lower” than this). There is no evidence to back this up.

There is a discrepancy between what the author thinks the infection fatality rate of the flu is, and what health experts say it is. The IFR of the seasonal flu is not 0.1%, as the author seems to indicate – that is actually the flu’s case fatality rate. The author compares the flu’s CFR (lab-confirmed cases) with SARS-CoV-2′s IFR (all estimated cases, lab-tested and untested).

Numerous studies show that Covid-19′s case fatality rate and infection fatality rate are both higher than the corresponding figures for the seasonal flu. You can read these studies here, herehere and here.

Estimates from health authorities, including the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as a meta-analysis by a scientific journal, put the infection fatality rate of Covid-19 at between 0.5 to 1%. This is significantly higher than the infection fatality rate of flu which is estimated at between 0.001% and 0.05%.

To make the case that the flu is more deadly, the author claims that there has been an “overreporting of Covid deaths” without evidence. 

The claim that the WHO and/or Dr Mike Ryan ‘admitted’ that Covid-19 is no more dangerous than the flu is FALSE.

The claim that Covid-19 is no more dangerous than the flu is also FALSE.

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