After working for three months straight at Detroit Medical Center, Said El Zein noticed that the coronavirus patients who began arriving in May appeared less sick than those who came before.
More than 4,000 miles away in northern Italy, researcher Chiara Piubelli was struck by the same thing.
Rafael Cantón, an infectious-disease specialist in Madrid, also marveled at the change. “It’s totally different,” he said last month of the falling admissions at his medical center, noting that only 130 of 1,000 beds were full despite surging infections — a huge change from early spring when every bed was occupied.
Death rates from the novel coronavirus are lower in hot spots around the world, even as new infections accelerate in what may be the pandemic’s next wave. Scientists are confident the change is real, but the reasons for it — and whether it will last — are a matter of intense debate.
“Is this a trend or a blip?” asked Joshua Barocas, an infectious-disease specialist at the Boston University School of Medicine. “Nobody really knows.”
The mortality rate of the coronavirus has been a moving target since the outbreak began.
Early reports out of China put it as high as 7 percent. But that was based mostly on hospitalized patients, and by the time the wave hit the United States, epidemiologists believed it was closer to 2 to 3 percent. Now, factoring in asymptomatic infections, as well as mild cases that might not be part of official tallies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts the mortality rate at 0.65 percent.
One prominent but still unproven theory suggested by early research is that we miscalculated humanity’s susceptibility to the coronavirus, and that a slice of the population may be partially immune, perhaps due to previous exposure to the common cold coronavirus, childhood vaccinations or something else.
The other possibility is that something important has changed in our environment — the weather, behaviors or the virus itself.
Most viruses lose their killing edge eventually, due to a lack of hosts, mutations that make them less deadly, or new treatments or vaccines. The novel coronavirus will, too, experts say, but it’s a matter of when and how many lives are lost until then. But most scientists doubt that’s what we are seeing now, based on genetic sequencing research.
One idea that has generated a lot of discussion recently, bolstered by two back-to-back studies — El Zein’s and another from Italy, presented in late September to the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases — is that social distancing and masks are reducing the dose of virus people are receiving, resulting in less-severe illness.
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