30/01/2020 8:54 AM AEDT | Updated 31/01/2020 9:03 AM AEDT

How Bad Actually Is Coronavirus? We Compare Its Progress With Previous Global Virus Outbreaks

"Vulnerable" Aussies being flown home from Wuhan will be quarantined on Christmas Island for 14 days.

HuffPost UK
Global cases of coronavirus as of January 28, 2020. The majority are in Wuhan, represented by the biggest green circle - 6,061 cases

The death toll from the coronavirus has risen to 170, and 7,800 infections have been confirmed worldwide. There are now nine confirmed cases of coronavirus in Australia ― two in Queensland, four in NSW and three in Victoria.

Two more Australian citizens, who are in China, have been confirmed to have the virus.

Governments around the world – including Australia – are scrambling to both prevent the disease spreading and to repatriate their citizens currently stranded in the Chinese city at the epicentre of the outbreak.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Wednesday that plans to evacuate Australians who are in Hubei province were advancing with “vulnerable Australians” to be held on Christmas Island for 14 days. 

“We have taken a decision this morning to prepare a plan for an operation to provide some assisted departures for isolated and vulnerable Australians in Wuhan and the Hubei province,” Morrison told reporters on at a press conference in Canberra.

The evacuations will be done on a last-in, first-out basis, Morrison added.

The PM received criticism from Australian Medical Association President Tony Bartone on Thursday for not consulting enough medical expertise on the quarantine plan. 

Dr Bartone told Channel 9′s Today show that government should find a more humane strategy. 

“We feel that the repatriation to Christmas Island, to a place where it’s been previously the focus of populations under enormous mental and physical trauma and anguish, is not a really appropriate solution and we will be calling on the PM and the relevant ministers to find a much more humane solution to dealing with a group of very vulnerable and concerned group of Australians,” Dr Bartone said. 

Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean 1,500km from the mainland, is home to a controversial immigration detention centre.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton responded to criticism during an appearance on Today on Thursday.

“The fact is we need to find a facility that can accommodate in the order of 500, 600 people. We want to make sure that we’re protecting Australians both offshore and here as well,” Dutton said.

All in all, there is quite the global crisis on the boil. But how bad is it really?

A Chinese volunteer wearing the protective clothing disinfects a street for prevention of the new coronavirus and pneumonia during the Chinese New Year or Spring Festival holiday in Dongxinzhuang Village, China.

For context, here’s how it stacks up to previous deadly outbreaks.

Let’s start with the latest on Coronavirus.

At the time of writing, and as noted above, 132 people – all in China – have died in the latest outbreak and there are about 6,000 reported cases of infection.

More than 50 infections have been confirmed outside China, including the United States, Australia, Germany and France.

Its symptoms, including cough and fever and in severe cases pneumonia, are similar to many other illnesses.

A WHO panel of 16 independent experts twice last week declined to declare an international emergency.

You may have noticed that coronavirus has been compared a lot to SARS, and for good reason: SARS was in fact a coronavirus. 

Confused? Don’t be. Coronavirus is actually a family of viruses that includes the common cold.

This current outbreak of coronavirus was temporarily named “2019-nCoV” but that doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as easily, so the generic family name has stuck.


Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was responsible for a global outbreak between November 2002 and July 2003. It was very similar to the current coronavirus. Crucially, while it was less infectious, it was also deadlier.

This can been seen in the chart below – while cases of coronavirus are already fast approaching the number of reported SARS cases, the death toll is far behind the 774 people who died in that outbreak.


It’s difficult to compare the number of deaths during the SARS outbreak after the same amount of time the coronavirus has been active as Chinese authorities withheld information – a lesson they appear to have learned this time around.

No further cases of SARS have been reported since 2004.


While the symptoms of SARS and coronavirus could be confused with a case of the flu, those of ebola most certainly can not.

The virus severely affects the blood’s ability to clot, leading to often fatal uncontrolled bleeding.

As you can see from the chart above, it is far deadlier than coronavirus and during the West Africa outbreak between 2014-16 almost 50% of cases were fatal.

Only a global concerted effort led by the World Health Organisation stopped the virus from spreading beyond the African continent, although isolated cases such as Scottish nurse Pauline Cafferkey did slip through the net.

Spanish Influenza

To put all of these into perspective, it’s necessary to hark back to 1918.

Not only was humanity dealing with what was then by far the most deadly war in history, but an outbreak of influenza spread around the world and killed around 5% of the entire world’s population – some 500m people.

There was barely a corner of the world unaffected with cases reported on remote islands in the pacific and even the Arctic

What was particularly terrifying about this strain of the flu virus was that it was especially lethal for those in the normally healthy age bracket of 20-40 years.

Medicine was obviously more primitive 100 years ago and there was no WHO to coordinate a response, but scientists still aren’t quite sure why it was so devastating.